amusement, arts, culture, diversion, entertainment, film, Gala Hispanic Theatre, Isabelle Allende, La casa de los espiritus, literature, monty python, Richard Blanco, Spanish, The House of the Spirits, theater, Washington D.C.
Such were the words of an eccentric theatre director from my husband’s former life as a Miami stage actor. Entertain me, the middle-aged man would say to the twenty-somethings whose ambitions reached beyond the commercials and raunchy soap operas most of them would eventually land between real jobs. Even now anyone bold enough to try their hand at show business will probably find this charge, entertain me, far easier said than done, and I expect the cast of La Casa de los Espíritus might agree.
Staged by Gala Hispanic Theatre and presented entirely in Spanish, The House of the Spirits spans several generations of the Truebas, a Chilean family whose patriarch allows his emotional scars to fester and slowly infect everyone around him. In an attempt to translate Isabelle Allende’s debut bestseller to the stage, playwright Caridad Svich perhaps took on more than she could handle and, well, it shows. Allende’s novel, a 500-page beast, comes across as little more than a novella in the play, and the show’s overuse of multi-media only compounds the production’s tepid character development and feeble story arc.
The opening scene features a bound and bloodied young woman being tortured by a military leader of sorts. She then appears throughout the play, alongside her parents and grandparents, narrating flashbacks and suffering more abuses at the hands of her kidnapper. As an audience member I couldn’t help feeling like a hostage myself, battered and disoriented by the production’s rushed and watered-down storytelling, shoved and shuttled by excessive special effects through a series of tenuously connected events. Outside of a particularly moving final scene between the first and last Trueba – grandfather and granddaughter – I can’t say I felt much for any of the protagonists, that I was given any reason to feel much for them, or that they felt very much for each other. Unfortunately a work that spans three generations, a war, a revolution and more than two hours on stage, can’t be redeemed by its last fifteen minutes.
Perhaps I set myself up for disappointment by expecting from performance arts what I want from great literature or even advocacy writing. A while ago I heard someone say that a good book disappears while you’re reading it, and instantly I recalled how as a child I fell in love in the stacks of the public library, with the sense of flight and adventure, with being consumed by a well-spun tale that made everything around me vanish. Speaking about his most recent work, author Richard Ford warned that readers must be compelled to turn the page: “When readers don’t let you do something, what they do is they close the book. I kind of have a feeling that when readers open a book, mine or somebody else’s, one of the things that they’re doing is looking for a reason to stop reading, because I’m constantly having to say, no, no, no….”
Here, Ford captures a true, albeit less sexy meaning of “entertain”: to hold the attention. Indeed, the gradual shift in language signals something eroded over time, like losing the ability to walk for lack of use of one’s legs. Even French and Spanish now prefer the cotton candy confection of amuser and divertir over the more demanding entretenir and entretener. It signals a preference for gun play, fat suits or reality-tv brawls at posh restaurants, a competition for ratings, clicks, downloads and “likes” at the expense of substance. And yet realizing an artistic endeavor entails more than a trifling distraction or CGI sleight of hand. At the risk of sounding strident or snobbish, I’d venture that real artists arrest their audiences even with familiar imagery; make us laugh when we shouldn’t; tempt us to cheat or lie or question firm beliefs; convince us that a character’s actions, no matter how awful or altruistic, are authentic; and even elicit sympathy for the most contemptible human beings. At the moment, Nabokov’s emotionally stunted pedophile Humbert Humbert comes to mind, the flowering of his agonizing fixation on Lolita, or Todd Perrotta’s “Little Children,” which invites audiences to feel compassion for a sexual deviant, a home wrecker and a “All-American” loser (I use these terms loosely). Though I’m not one for sci-fi, “District 9″ successfully transposes the dehumanizing scourge of apartheid conditions on extraterrestrials – aliens for Christ’s sake! In the way of comedy, Louis C.K.’s lucid riffs on Hitler, Cinnabons or old ladies lost in airports are superb examples, though always outdone by Monty Python’s “Fishy, Fishy, Fishy Fish.”
In my view, the artist’s challenge to entertain requires making an audience give a damn about something, even if she undertakes yet another (trite) fiction about a writer living in New York. I attribute whatever cyclical crisis in arts to the endless production of safe/sterile or simply sensational – in short, what passes for art but are merely curiosities, as my late father-in-law put it. Case in point, Josh Groban, most mixed-media ‘art’ and most contemporary American poetry. Sorry, Richard Blanco and virtually every New Yorker poet, it’s boring. Please stop.
As a failed dancer, violinist, jazz vocalist, writer and astrophysicist, I’m not very likely to stop searching for good art, which surely means going to my share of bad shows and exhibitions. But giving up would be akin to consigning my intellectual life to People magazine or to the shocking accumulation of dust bunnies under the sofa.