We are in full swing of the Women’s Voices in Theatre Festival with some mighty impressive entries having led out of the gate. We have Artistic Director Molly Smith in great part to thank for initiating this gathering of talent. So now comes Washington’s own Karen Zacarías and a key favorite of Arena’s stable of writers with her new play Destiny of Desire. It is one of two plays by female playwrights Arena offers to the festival, and has been a highly anticipated event.
If the show didn’t quite feel like a finished work, I am reminded of what playwright Lisa Kron said at the launching event for the festival, that, as with any event series purporting to support experiments and new voices, there will be some great work, some mediocre work, and some poor work, even failures. She reminded us that every work serves in the conversation, and risk has to be at the core.
Zacarías wanted to write a response to the popularity of the telenovelas. I am by no means an expert on this brand of soap opera, but I have watched my share on the Univision channel as a means to pick up some Spanish. It was great to see the large cast of Hispanic actors on Arena’s stage, and these performers did more than double duty as actors, singers, dancers, as radio announcers barking out statistics regarding “Women and Hispanics” on standing mics from the sides of the stage, as well as “techies” aiming floodlights and “noh-like” stage-hands waving pieces of cloth and whisking props and set pieces on and off stage.
The story follows two girls switched soon after birth between a rich casino “boss” and his ambitious, dressed-in-size-2 haute couture wife and a poor farmer couple who produced the stronger, healthier baby. That event triggers the unraveling of truth eighteen years later by the broadly sketched stereotyped characters.
The show had some wonderfully entertaining moments. Somewhat silly as the genre suggests and so extravagant in plot, it both reveled in the over-the-top melodramatic twists and turns and critiqued the stock characters that abound in the form. Such stereotypes are a staple of television soaps, and the cast of characters in this show reminded me of an L.A. producer talking about his TV series, who said, “There’s the pretty one, the good one, and the bitchy one. You could be the bitchy one.” In Destiny of Desire, there’s a greedy doctor, the rich boss-dad and his bitchy wife, a “good” peasant dad and his sturdy straight-talking wife, and four young lovers who, let’s just say, are entwined more than one would hope for. The revelations that come with this amorous quartet groping toward each other make for some of the best fun of the evening.
Stylistically, it felt confusing as to what Zacarías was aiming for in an “aesthetic, artistic, and political” endeavor. Some of the problem had to do with the staging. At the start, there was the framing device of a whole pre-show interaction first with the audience by the actors then on stage as if the performers had just arrived to tape at a television studio. The actors seemed awkward and a little “stagey” in their warm-up choices, missing the opportunity to reveal nuanced off-stage behaviors to contrast with the soap opera’s melodramatic style. A pity in the writing that the device never returned, but the actors when not in a scene were relegated to sitting and watching the action from the side of the stage and we never get to see “real” people merge the two styles.
Although there were camera lights and stands with scripts lying about, one never saw a TV camera or the tight headshots framed suitably for the small screen medium. Display monitors might have helped us appreciate the long takes of characters’ expressions and serve to remind the actors to play more intimately – after all they were mic’d. Instead, too many of the younger actors especially abandoned a close-in acting style and punched up the volume which seemed at odds with the convention of tele-acting.
As for the choreography by Robert Barry Fleming, it was a bit “dancing with chairs.” The scenes, as appropriate for telenovelas, are very episodic, and the repeated, vague rolling around of furniture bits got stale very quickly. It also confused me as to the “reality” of the genre. I did like the device of “rewinding tape,” where at key plot points characters froze then moved backwards in “fast rewinds” of action, making for highly entertaining business.
In the first act, some of the best work happened when the actors cut loose in Latin dancing and singing. Throughout the evening, whenever they spoke or sang in Spanish, things got really buoyant and fun. There was a lot of good dancing but Fidel Gomez as Dr. Diego and the delicious Elia Sadaña in a kind Cinderella-at-the-ball evening literally swept all of us off our feet.
The music, much of it original by Rosino Serrano, was terrific. It was hard to tell which part was piped in and what was played from a piano slightly off stage (occasionally aided by a concertina.) Serrano took turns both on and off stage as musician and performer. I only wish the music had been more evenly distributed. In the first act, it seemed to be pulled out as dance numbers, Bollywood spectacle style. Then in the second act, we got lots of solos and duets.
The knockout moment of the evening was Nicholas Rodriguez singing a solo in the second act. Here was the full-blown realization of what I think Zacarías was going for – something that both spoofed the form and culture and fulfilled an emotional moment. It was a blow-out performance. Rodrigues sang with the exaggerated, trilled r’s and ardent sob in the voice of a Latin matinee idol singer, but he pulled it off with a total emotional commitment, punctuating at the end by wiping a tear from his eye. Rodriguez is a star singer and his ability to soar through melodic lines made for simply gorgeous singing.
Too much of the dialogue proceeded through heavy-handed pronouncements, some of them dished out like wisecracks. Spouting from the lips of Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as the rich Fabiola Castillo giving maternal advice comes “Beauty is the only weapon God gives women” and “Eat less and show more leg.” I kept getting taken out of the play, thinking, “Was this meant to be funny?” The stream of statistics which punctuated the scenes, were mixed in tone and didn’t always seem to connect with what had taken place on stage.
Happily, the actors all have moments when they break out of the confines of the genre. Carlos Gómez as the grounded farmer and Victoria’s father comes the closest to forging a believable throughline for his character.
DESTINY OF DESIRE
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 11 – October 18
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $55 – $100
Marian Licha is likewise terrific in the somewhat complicated role of Sister Sonia, who abets the switch of babies at the beginning but then becomes the moral voice of the play. This actress and her character crack open the mold of stereotype. From the first moment of the play when she is playing the actress in the studio who has to “hand over” her costume to the reigning diva spitting darts of fire her way (Fernandez-Coffey,) she complies but with such smoldering strength that she plants the seeds that this is a woman to be reckoned with at a later date. Whether she’s on a mic or presiding at a wedding, this “nun” is someone who always makes sense of every action.
Esperanza America and Rodriguez have a memorable scene that shifts from steamy, “made for TV” sexuality to a moment of dramatic discovery. Their simple exclamations showing horror, disgust, and embarrassment are some of the best writing and most delicious performance moments of the evening. America and Saldaña share a scene in exploring girl sexuality that is both hysterical and touching. Rayanne Gonzales turns out to be more wily and sassy in her assessment of men and young women than she is sketched at first. All these scenes are memorable and show Zacarías at her best.
Oscar Seville and Cástulo Guerra as the token “baddies” who nonetheless win our admiration and our chuckles. Fernandez-Coffey gets the award for pulling off the best duds of the evening as well as master of the drop-dead look. The costumes by Julie Weiss are gorgeous, and, especially for the women, are especially stylishly “Sex in the City” and great fun.
Maybe, after all, this romp is just that. If you are after an evening of escape and silly fun, this show might just fit the bill.
Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías . Music by Rosino Serrano . Directed by José Luis Valenzuela . Featuring Esperanza America, Oscar Ceville, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffee, Carlos Gómez, Fidel Gomez, Rayanne Gonzales, Cástulo Guerra, Marian Licha, Nicholas Rodriguez, Elia Saldaña, and Rosino Serrano. Set Design: François-Pierre Couture . Lighting Design: Pablo Santiago . Costume Design: Julie Weiss . Composer: Rosino Serrano . Sound Design: John Zalewski . Wig Design: Anne Nesmith . Stage Manager: Kurt Hall, assisted by Trevor A. Riley . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.