At the highest level, I invariably find myself looking at a show in one of three ways. What is it trying to tell me? Where is it all going? Or, do I just strap in and go along with the ride? Arena Stage Destiny of Desire, the telenovela-inspired calliope of controlled chaos, is decidedly behind door number 3.
For the uninitiated (all of you dedicated Tivo-ers who have channel jumped past Telemundo), this genre is an episodic television offering full of Latina dramatic elements of passion, misplaced romance, oddball characters and ample cleavage. Resident Playwright Karen Zacarías has skillfully taken this more lightly thought of art form and weaved a mesmerizing tale of love, deceit, and hidden identities that provides a hilarious turn of fate at every step.
…the telenovela-inspired calliope of controlled chaos…
As on a studio set, the actors slowly get ready, dressing, preening and pirouetting for the opening. Then, on point, a crash of lightning. A turbulent night in rural Mexico, as Sister Sonia (Marian Licha) dutifully announces, from her station. She is on hand when two women come to a hospital to deliver their babies. One, a poor farmer and his wife Ernesto (a believeable Carlos Gomez) and Hortencia (the spunky Rayanne Gonzales) deliver a healthy baby. The others, Fabiola (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and Armando (the booming presence of Castulo Guerra) are the rich Castillo’s, the owners of the casino in town, who give birth to a weak child, under the watchful eye of an ambitious doctor (the smooth talking Oscar Ceville).
When power-hungry Fabiola, wonderfully played in garish tones by Fernandez-Coffey, decides to take the healthy baby, putting a new wing on the hospital and setting into motion the unraveling of the story of the two families.
From here we sit back as many characters add their own life stories. Hortencia may be having an affair with the Doctor, and she is put in jail when he is accidentally shot. Her daughter Victoria (Elia Saldana) goes to work for the Castillo’s, who are really her parents. She becomes BFF with Pilar (Esperanza America) the daughter switched at birth. A Cinderella setup for her coming out party has them switching roles and causing chaos all around. But it doesn’t stop here. Sebastian (Nicholas Rodriguez), Armando Castillo’s estranged son, has returned, and falls in love unexpectedly with Pilar, his sister by switch. As identities are revealed, lives are saved and fortunes are redirected, the effect is grand. Leave it to say that there is mucho more to come.
The all Latino cast of Director Jose Luis Valenzuela is a heralded group of talent that have embraced the telenovela genre, which requires actors to play outrageous and nuance at the same moments. Much akin to our old newsreels, it liberally uses dramatic pauses as freeze frames and also the classic roll back the tape sequence of action, in a ‘did I just see that’ moment. Fernandez-Coffey and Licha held stage moments wonderfully. Our two ingénues, Saldana and America, fit in well, the former a gentle sprite with a heart of gold, and latter a smoldering flame of passion.
In the telenovela beefcake role (would that be carnepastel?) is Rodriquez, offering a smooth convincing performance that dwarfed his good looks, which is not easy to do. A veteran of Broadway and seen as Curly in Arena’s Oklahoma!, his heart rending ode to love sung in Act II was enchanting, even without the translation.
One cheekily charming aspect of the show are the occasional Public Service Announcement breaks given by an actor as action freezes onstage. Following in telenovela tradition, these PSAs were typically used for healthcare awareness issues and government policy, but here they interject quick barbs into the stage action.
Valenzuela has a lot of talent to work with and didn’t waste it at all. Admittedly, there is no commentary on the human condition contained here, but that’s ok. By infusing the tight drama with outrageous characters and sight gags, we have a wonderful acting opportunity for the players.
As much as the actors are front and center, this is almost as much a technical success. Among an all star team of production talent, Set Designer Francis –Pierre Couture crafted a simple speedy open set and lighting by Pablo Santiago was effective, as well as a nod to Costume Designer Julie Weiss for appropriately outrageous outfits.
As the Arena offering for the Women’s Voices Festival, Karen Zacarias has collaborated with Arena in the past and has strong ties to the DC area. In addition, she has been nothing if not prolific. Her upcoming schedule includes several premiers of her works: Native Gardens at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; Oliverio: A Brazilian Twist at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Ella Enchanted: The Musical at First Stage and Into the Beautiful North at Milagro Theater.
Busy woman. Probably doesn’t have time to watch daytime TV…
Advisory: Some adult themes and situations.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with an intermission.
Destiny of Desire is playing at Arena Stage from Sept. 11 to Oct. 18 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC. For information or tickets to this or upcoming shows, 202-488-3300 or online.