A baby who cries so much that her tears flood a room. A bedspread knit over many years until it’s large enough to cover a whole ranch. A meal so sensuous that it propels a woman to run off to make love to a strange man on horseback and abandon her family. It’s moments like these that make “Like Water for Chocolate” so captivating — and a challenge to present on the stage.
Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel “Como Agua Para Chocolate” was a best-seller in her native Mexico and in the United States after it was published in English translation the following year; the 1992 movie based on the novel was at the time the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in U.S. history. Yet, after having first been theatrically adapted in Spain in 2004, the work is only now having its U.S. premiere as a play, at GALA Hispanic Theatre.
“It is challenging to transform,” director Olga Sanchez says. “Theater has to do a whole lot of backbends to fulfill everything that people get out of a novel, which is so incredibly rich, and people read over months’ time. And a play, you basically have about two hours.”
“Like Water for Chocolate” is a story of food, passion and forbidden love set in northern Mexico in the early 20th century. Sensitive Tita (Ines Dominguez del Corral) is the youngest of the three daughters of Mama Elena (GALA company member Luz Nicolas), the harsh, bitter matriarch of the De la Garza family, who rules over her household with an authoritarian hand. Tita falls in love with a young man, Pedro (Peter Pereyra), but is forbidden from marrying him because of the family tradition that the youngest daughter must take care of her mother until she dies. Willing to do anything he can to be close to Tita, Pedro instead marries her sister Rosaura, leading to an increasingly complicated web of relationships.
Esquivel’s use of magical realism — a literary technique embraced by many Latin American writers that injects fantastical or supernatural occurrences into real-world settings — is a large part of the work’s allure. Tita’s existence is intertwined with the kitchen and cooking, and her concoctions have a powerful effect on those who taste them: After she cries tears of sadness into a cake batter, for instance, everyone who eats the dessert is overcome with a deep nostalgia for past lovers … and also ends up vomiting uncontrollably.
The theatrical adaptation is largely faithful to the novel, meaning that “Like Water for Chocolate” requires a certain suspension of disbelief at points. And yet those elements never seem out of place in the narrative.
“It is still real. It’s just a heightened reality,” Sanchez says.
Projections on the back wall of the stage reveal more about the family, such as through old photographs, and are used to intensify some of the play’s more fantastical aspects. For example, when the tears of Tita, as a baby, fill the room, a muted projection of ripples of water helps create the illusion.
The story is also compelling because of the historical backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, a nine-year armed conflict starting in 1910 that democratized the country and strengthened social justice. Although that upheaval only comes through occasionally — various factions descend on the De la Garza family’s ranch; the third sister, Gertrudis, joins the rebels — the theme of liberation mirrors the struggle of the play’s protagonists to break free from outdated and restrictive social norms.
“Personal liberation, loving who you love and having no external rules,” Sanchez says. “I think the reason it thrives as a classic and touches people’s hearts is because it has a universal theme.”
GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW; through Oct. 7, $30-$48, in Spanish with English surtitles.