Cartography Lessons with Caridad Svich: The Ancient and the Contemporary Collide in the Dreamscapes of Her Plays

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ON STAGE AT MANHATTAN'S REPERTORIO ESPANOL, a beautiful woman with green hair holds a plush toy, telekinetically wafted from a nearby tree, while her little sister and a huge black dog-puppet cavort around her. Screens covered in handwritten text make the stage seem vast, and a girl from two generations away watches it all from her torture chamber.

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At Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, N.J., a woman is alone on a stage. A girl's voice offers a monologue in the second person, speaking as much to the woman as she is to herself, as she is to us. Then darkness. The woman and her husband, a deeply bourgeois couple, sneak off to a party, making a narcissistic (if seemingly harm-less) decision about child care. Everyone in the audience knows something bad is about to happen, and no one can breathe for wondering: What?

At Crowded Fire Theater Company in San Francisco, two terrified boys huddle on a beach. Are they revenants? Castaways? Victims of an unspeakable calamity? They don't know, and neither do we. But soon they argue, and a woman in an expensive dress comes ... for just one of them.

These are the world-premiere plays of Caridad Svich that have opened this past season: La Casa de los espiritus (The House of the Spirits, in translation), Instructions for Breathing and Wreckage. In all three works, Svich reveals herself as a cartographer of cultural dreamscapes. Each play maps out profoundly different, but profoundly human, terrain. These plays, one might say, are like people we know--different on the surface, but driven by similarly human hearts. It is a condition they share with Svich's most widely produced work, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable), which received its Austin, Tex., debut early this year in a top-flight production at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

Each of these plays is an adaptation, in the best sense of the word. Svich isn't retelling old stories, but finding an ancient spark and letting it ignite her very contemporary aesthetics. These are adaptations whose sources live in the deeply Jungian recesses of cultural memory, like shared dreams. The House of the Spirits comes from Isabel Allende's novel of the same name, a seminal work of magic realism. Wreckage gives new life to Medea's children. And the child that disappears in Euripides' Ion disappears again in Instructions for Breathing.

Such source material surreptitiously sprawls through Western culture. Consequently, each of these plays is an act of postmodern mythopoesis, engaging the complexities of the 21st-century stage. The House of the Spirits, for example, depicts a world of plasticized sociopolitical identity--one of the most interesting manifestations of which is the use of many different Spanish accents. By simply having each actor keep the tone and inflection of his or her own Spanish dialect, the audience is shifted out of the artificial, homogeneous world usually portrayed on a stage and into an implied cross-cultural pastiche. This allows the play (even for an anglophone audience) to seem alien and familiar simultaneously.

With a wink and a nod of staging, both Wreckage and Instructions for Breathing could happen in any developed nation, and most developing ones as well. In Wreckage, for example, a convenience-store security camera offers a leitmotif of visual information to help the audience interpret and reinterpret the events of the plot, which could be unfolding in any seaside community from Coney Island to Acapulco.

Svich's diverse plays are both freshly contemporary and popularly accessible, often blurring boundaries and assembling fragments aesthetically appropriate for a pressurized culture. These are plays of quantum suspense, where anything can happen at any time--but once that anything happens, it feels like the only thing that could have happened after all. The death of the giant dog Barrabas, in The House of the Spirits, is one such moment. …