Women who behave rarely make great artists. Local D.C. playwright Karen Zacarías and a well-polished GALA Hispanic Theatre cast and technical team present us with a strange, tragic-comic masterpiece that introduces us to outsiders living in the desert, where characters are up against vast open spaces and nothingness. This is a complex play about the sacrifice it takes not only to become an artist but also to remain one.
Mariela in the Desert has gone through several rewrites and the results are stunning. This mesmerizing production that illuminates Zacarías’ intense, imagistic language builds slowly through clearly defined flashbacks. From a calm surface, it erupts like an earthquake at the end. Director Abel López’ sensitive directing enriches Zacarías’ language with memorable stage images.
It is 1951. Surrealistic painter José Salvatierra, played with bellowing volatility by Roberto Colmenares, once hobnobbed with the leaders of Mexican Expressionism. The aging artist has lost toes and is dying of diabetes. Growing ever more irascible, he stabs his well-meaning sister, Oliva, (Renate Wallenberg) in the hand with a fork. Oliva, the spinster, is a grim person, “I live in a dark dress at the edge of the world in a parched house that my brother owns.”
José is cared for by his wife Mariela, played by the incomparable Luz Nicolás, already proven to be a versatile character-actress-of-all-roles. Here, she gives a superb tour-de-force, not-to-be-missed performance. She personifies self-sacrifice, combative, and sassy, yet tender and submissive to José’s every whim.
Through a seamless flashback, we learn that José believed he could retreat to the Northern Mexican desert to revolutionize art. This fictional painter is obsessed with reviving beauty in art to put a stop to the grotesque realism flowing from Frida Kahlo, a still living artist who broke all the rules, and savored the ugliness of realistic detail, along with surrealist, socialist muralists Rufino Tamayo, David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera.
Blanca, (Alina Collins Maldonado,) the coming-of-age daughter coming home, is an emerging artist. In one short soliloquy, the paradoxical reason for her absence, emerges: “I am as lost as I have ever been. I am home.”
The warm, earth-toned set, designed by Ruthmarie Tenorio, is inviting and multi-purpose. We are inside a bare-bone, desert ranch house, with raw-wooded, post-and-lintel doorways, square-blocked, fading terracotta tile flooring, suggestive of grander days. The stage right area, where easels are leaning, canvases and packing material strewn about, is José’s art studio, once part of the barn where he keeps a prize-winning painting, The Blue Barn, that becomes symbolic for Mariela’s nuclear family.
The mysterious painting with an odd slash down the middle (although we only see the back of it onstage) captures it all: her autistic son Carlos is the green boy running, and Blanca is the orange bird. The plot is moved forward by a chain of lies.
López draws out magnificent performances from a well-tuned ensemble of actors. He gives his actors memorable entrances, what I would call ‘frozen moments,’ that distill our attention and help us care about these people. Zacarías’ style of rhythmic, poetic dialogue may sound off-putting at first, but rings with truth.
The entrance of the American college professor Adam Lovitz, given a refreshing take by Peter Pereyra, is noteworthy for different reasons. Lovitz is framed by an upstage recessed window, lit for a sunset, (Lighting by Christopher Annas-Lee) before he enters: “…..I am an outsider: I am at home where I do not belong.” Pereyra succeeds in conveying an arresting gentleness, without pomposity, though his professor is bold enough to be teaching Mexicans about their own art movements. He is the intellectual on a spiritual quest, dedicated to the aesthetics of art more than to his own ego. Lovitz draws near to The Blue Barn with reverence, almost as if he is in the presence of a Pietà in a cathedral.
Another must-mention in the cast: Carlos, the little boy brother, who appears to be autistic, is convincingly depicted by Miguel Alejandro Amaguaña. Carlos is described through gossip as “…..a little boy running in the desert.” During the flashback with a scorpion, Alejandro Amaguaña gets it pitch-perfect. He bangs his head against the wall, pulls his hair, trying to hurt himself. He utters repetitive phrases, like “The scorpion is so still…..so still.”
Luz Nicolás succeeds in making Mariela likeable and fascinating, a towering archetypal, nurturing earth mother, in spite of the fact that in the past, she has behaved dishonestly and done untrustworthy things to survive on her own terms. Mariela has stolen her mother’s treasured brooch, a heinous act that has disastrous consequences, and later uses the emeralds and a ruby to pay for art school and her wedding dress. What’s important to understand is Zacarías writes about exaggerated events so that Mariela’s soliloquies reach satiric levels, ridiculing a society that stifles creativity. A young woman wreaks havoc to win artistic freedom.
But Mariela makes a difficult choice later and becomes a conventional mother for the sake of her children. She is brave enough to beat a scorpion to death to protect her panicky youngsters. Yet during the sizzling mother-daughter confrontations between Mariela and Blanca, the keenly observant Blanca asks why Mariela doesn’t paint on paper. “Because I don’t mess with perfection,” Mariela says. It’s a turning point. Blanca asks if she should do what Mariela did. “….Give up? And resign myself to living a plain and decent life and dedicate myself to raising children?”
From the way Nicolás moves like a reigning queen, with the grace of a ballerina, pain written all over her face, her gaze cast upward as if looking for redemption that never arrives and forever disappoints, we see her agonizing, stifled creativity. Of The Blue Barn on display in the room, Mariela stoically says: “We have to learn to live with what we do.” We later learn exactly what she means. When final revelations come in pin-drop stillness near play’s end, it is soul shaking. On opening night, gasps were audible.
MARIELA IN THE DESERT
April 16 – May 10
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $42
Thursdays thru Sundays
There was some confusion among audience members about references to Frida Kahlo. More program notes would have helped explaining the importance of Kahlo and Rivera. It doesn’t seem that Mariela is a projection of Kahlo. But there are strong parallels between the lives of the fictional Mariela and José Salvatierra and real life artists, Rivera, who was married to Kahlo, and who lived in the cobalt Blue House (La Casa Azul in Mexico City). Rivera had great technical skill as a mural painter, a propagandist, who painted outside reality; but Kahlo had the vision to express life from within, and to paint ground-breaking art.
It’s subtle and clever the way Zacarías integrates the true story of Frida Kahlo’s horrific accident suffered as a teenager when a bus collided with a trolley car. In the play, José tells a story of how Mariela rode the same street car but was uninjured as a passenger. Mariela supposedly observed and reported the accident in which Kahlo was impaled, leaving her disabled and infertile. But José, whose idea it was to live in the desert, apparently uses Kahlo’s healing in isolation, allowing her time to paint, as an inspiration.
The conflicts that emerge are variations on a theme explored in the 2009 Arena Stage staging of Legacy of Light, that raised the question: How do women balance a passionate yearning for science with maternal instinct? Mariela in the Desert zeroes in on women artists, and is based on the playwright’s own personal family history,. Zacarías originally wrote Mariela in English to introduce Americans audiences to an artistic Latino family not often seen on stage. The play is translated into Spanish for this GALA staging.
The play ends on a tonic chord, spiritually reassuring. Mariela, who has the fire and passion, is an inspiration for stoic endurance in the way she transcends excruciating personal pain and thrives, as seen in that miraculous last scene. Mariela will have a second chance. The ending reaches epic levels, disturbing and incoherent at times, leaving us with unanswered questions, and is ultimately deeply satisfying.
In Spanish with English surtitles
Mariela In The Desert/Mariela en el Desierto by Karen Zacarías . Directed by Abel López . Featuring Luz Nicolás, Roberto Colmenares, Alina Collins Maldonado, Miguel Amaguaña, Peter Peryera and Renate Wallenberg . Scenic design: Ruthmarie Tenorio . Lighting design: Christopher Annas-Lee . Costume design: Brian J. Shaw . Sound design: Brendon Vierra . Properties: Alicia Tessari . Stage manager: Artemis López . Technical director: Rueben Rosenthal . Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.