“Writing is a political act”: Caridad Svich on the adaptation of “House on the Lagoon”


A regular DMV viewer should know the name Caridad Svich. A prolific writer, adapter and translator (as well as critic, editor, publisher, activist and theater member Twitterati), Svich has been produced at area theaters from Arena Stage to newly formed ensemble Pan Underground, as well as Theater Alliance, force/collision, 4615 Theater Company, the Source Festival, Single Carrot Theatre, Factory 449, Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts, and most often GALA Hispanic Theater, which Svich calls his “DC home.”

His latest play, an adaptation of the epic novel by Rosario Ferré The House on the Lagoon, recently opened at the GALA. Set in Puerto Rico, the layered story spans nearly three decades of life in the Mendizábal house. At its center is Isabel Monfort, wife, mother and writer who tries to write the story of her and her husband’s families, who represent many historical, cultural and political divisions of the island. The world premiere production runs until February 27, 2022.

Ernesto Concepción as Quintín and Yaiza Figueroa as Isabel in ‘La casa de la laguna (The house on the lagoon).’ Photo by Daniel Martinez.

Svich recently zoomed in from his New York home to chat about the play, his DMV Theater connections and different writing styles, and more.

Chad Kinsman: How the adaptation came about The house of the lagoon (The House on the Lagoon) to arrive?

Caridad Svich: After The Tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the screenwriter) [April 2021], GALA asked if we should do anything else, something that would be previewed with them. I said, “Great!” They wanted a large, multi-generational novel about Puerto Rico. If you want to do that, Rosario Ferré is definitely a good place to start.

We read several options, and GALA loved it The house of the lagoon. It’s a stylistically compelling novel, and its politics are thorny and resonant. It was at the start of the pandemic. I was finishing an adaptation commissioned for Repertorio Español [in New York City]so I was already in adaptation mode.

What does the “mode of adaptation” imply?

I re-read the novel and took a ton of notes. I also re-read more of Rosario’s works to get a sense of his sensibilities as a writer, as I have to respond to them one way or another. The house on the lagoon is the first novel she wrote directly in English, before translating it back into Spanish. That puzzles me. It’s as if she discovered her voice as an English-speaking writer.

Then you have to make the tough decisions that happen in adaptation, because we’re not going to tell the whole story. I had to figure out the heart of the book, which doesn’t reveal itself as easily or as quickly as other pieces I’ve done. This novel has so much to do. There are beautiful and fascinating detours that contextualize Puerto Rico’s colonialist history, and chapters of the novel Isabel is writing, but I feel like the heart is Isabel and the marriage. It is ultimately the engine of the plot.

In the book, because Isabel is a bit of a replacement for Rosario, she’s kind of in the shadows. She tells the story, but her dramatic dynamism is not as present. So I said, “I have to save Isabel.” I put her in the center of the dramatic action. I also wanted to create a great lead role for an actor.

Playwright Caridad Svich. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

You mentioned that the politics of the novel are resonant but also thorny. How? ‘Or’ What?

Marriage is a metaphor for larger concerns. The repressive regime of the house is indicative of the repressive regimes of the island. It’s done in a beautiful way in the book, and I hope it comes across in the play.

It is also a class story. Rosario Ferré comes from one of the richest families in Puerto Rico, and she wrote about her background, about the upper class that sheltered itself from the rest of society. I love that she dared as a writer to say, “This is the world I grew up in, and it’s wrong.” She criticizes that. The novel is satirical, to a large extent, but I didn’t want to dwell on that. I wanted to make sure the play got into the emotional belly of the novel.

The story also deals with the intersections of race and colorism, as well as the ideas of independence, statehood, and commonwealth, the three things that are, sadly, an eternal question of Puerto Rico.

Does your work as an adapter and translator influence your original work?

The luxury of [translating and adapting] it’s getting into another writer’s brain. You can see how they think about drama, theatrics, language, sound, character and plot. I see other ways of doing things, so when I return to my writing desk, everyone is with me. When I’m stuck in a creative problem, I can ask, “How would Calderón de la Barca solve this?” [laughs] It expands the range of options.

It’s also a breath of fresh air. When you’re working on your own stuff, you kind of get bogged down. It’s nice to take a break and try new ideas. Then you can come back to the writing table feeling empowered and confident, because writing is difficult and vulnerable.

Zooming out, what is your relationship with DC, given how many venues have produced your work?

DC is maybe one of the cities where I am produced the most, and it happened mysteriously, at least for me [laughs]. I think The house of los spirtus (The House of Spirits) [2013] at GALA, it was my first major [DMV] show, and that might have sparked some interest in my work in the area. It had a lot of scope and ambition in terms of subject matter and theatricality. I have to say that GALA’s continued commitment to my work has been a blessing.

There is some really exciting work in DC and adjacent areas. There’s a mix of venue-based businesses with higher and lower budgets and this nice kind of DIY theater, and I’m seeing artists moving in amongst them, which is very healthy for the ecosystem.

It’s also a city where politics happens on a daily basis, so there’s a tendency to produce work that talks about the issues of the day, how people are supported, or not supported, in this world.

Ernesto Concepción as Quintín and Yaiza Figueroa as Isabel in ‘La casa de la laguna (The house on the lagoon).’ Photo by Daniel Martinez.

Do you consider your work to be political?

Writing is a political act. The minute you bookmark the page, you say this Questions. I want to shine a light here. The house of spirits talks about capitalism, power, colonialism, tyranny, survival of a dictatorship and gender-based violence. Maybe because it was my first big production in the area, people were like, “Oh, you’re writing this.”

It’s sometimes a double-edged sword, in that people might not see the other sides of my writing voice. I also do fun things, creative and romantic things. Other works show different facets of my writing voice, from a literary and performative point of view.

Is there a play you would like to see on a DMV stage soon?

It’s hard to pick favorites when you’re a writer, because they all want your love, right? [laughs] But I wrote an article called Chelsea and Ivanka, which, if there’s one place to see it, it’s DC. At least initially.

The house of the lagoon (The House on the Lagoon) plays through February 27, 2022 at the GALA Hispanic Theater, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. The production is presented in Spanish with English surtitles from Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets ($48 regular; $35 seniors, students, teachers, and military; $25 customers ages 25 and under) can be purchased in line or by calling 202-234-7174.

lag is one block from the Columbia Heights subway station on the green and yellow lines. Parking is available at a discount in the Giant parking garage near Park Road NW.

COVID Safety: Masks are mandatory. Proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID-19 test (taken within 72 hours of showtime) required for all patrons ages 5 and up. GALA’s full COVID safety policy is here.

La casa de la laguna (The house on the lagoon) is appropriate for ages 12 and up.

Hanging in and Moving Forward at GALA with Theater That Matters (interview with GALA Executive Director Rebecca Medrano and actor Ernesto Concepción by Susan Galbraith)
Stellar Cast Plays Puerto Rican Family in GALA’s ‘House on the Lagoon’ (reviewed by Susan Galbraith)
GALA’s bold and diverse new season to tackle freedom (season announcement)

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