Playwright Karen Zacarías was tired of the way so many dramas written by Latino authors were dismissively compared to telenovelas. Her response was to write a play that celebrates, sends up and politically examines the steamy, coincidence-ridden, histrionic television genre that's so beloved throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
The result is the terrifically entertaining theatrical roller-coaster "Destiny of Desire," which opened earlier this month at South Coast Repertory in a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The play contains more plot twists, cliff-hangers and climactic revelations than can be found in a season of new works at most sedate regional theaters.
There's also a good deal more vitality, comic spryness and fictional imagination on tap than usual. "Destiny of Desire" may owe a debt to soap operas, miniseries and potboilers of the most shameless variety, but it also shares storytelling DNA with Shakespeare's romances, in which children are lost, lovers are separated and the lurking threat of death and destruction makes happy endings all the more delectable.
Directed to perfection by José Luis Valenzuela and performed by a harmonious all-Latino ensemble, the play not only revels in its deliriously spiraling plot but it also showcases, in a giddy wave to Bertolt Brecht, the pleasures of presenting such over-the-top fare.
The setting is "an abandoned theater in Orange County." The magnificent set design by François-Pierre Couture, who raises the aesthetic game of every production he works on, provides artful hints of the backstage area of an old show palace.
The story comes to life before our very eyes, with no attempt to conceal how the illusion is manufactured. The production, deploying scrims and and billowy fabrics, often seems to scuttle on clouds of unadulterated zaniness. Title cards ("Life, Death and Destiny") winkingly set up the scenes.
Actors remain visible on the periphery even when their characters are meant to be offstage. Sound effects are created before a standing microphone, which is also used to announce relevant sociological information on various aspects of the narrative, such as the percentage of women who would have an affair if they knew they could get away with it.
A pianist (composer/music director Rosino Serrano) occupies a discreet corner of the Segerstrom Stage, reminding us that the "melo" in melodrama means music. Songs are interspersed, and underscoring is used to heighten suspense and buoy the action.
The tale — and what a convoluted doozy it is — begins in a hospital with two women, Fabiola Castillo (Ruth Livier) and Hortencia del Rio (Elisa Bocanegra), delivering baby girls on the same stormy night. These two women could hardly be more different — Hortencia is the simple, good-hearted wife of farmer Ernesto del Rio (Mauricio Mendoza), and Fabiola is a former beauty pageant winner and the current scheming trophy wife of casino magnate Armando Castillo (Cástulo Guerra).
Born with a defective heart, Fabiola's tiny baby is not expected to survive. Fearing her husband will divorce her if the infant dies, Fabiola demands that her doctor, Jorge Ramiro Mendoza (Ricardo Gutierrez), switch babies. Reluctantly, Sister Sonia (Evelina Fernández), a no-nonsense nurse in a nun's habit, gives her consent, understanding that with Fabiola's maternal deficiencies the struggling baby wouldn't stand a chance
The story jumps ahead 18 years, by which time the two daughters, Pilar Esperanza Castillo (Esperanza America) and Victoria Maria del Rio (Ella Saldana North) are on the brink of womanhood. Neither knows her real identity, but with Hortencia working as Fabiola's maid and the return of Sebastián Jose Castillo (Eduardo Enrikez), Armando's prodigal son now rehabilitated and smitten with Pilar after a chance meeting at a park, the truth is bound to come out eventually.
To list the characters and their various crises would require a flow chart. Which makes Zacarías command of her material all the more impressive. Even when the play goes bonkers with emergency heart transplant surgery on Victoria performed by Dr. Mendoza's physician son, Diego (Fidel Gomez), to say nothing of the hovering threat of incest, "Destiny of Desire" sweeps you up in its wildly rambunctious narrative.
The political vision holding all this together is expressed as a gentle under-song of equality. For all the differences in wealth and social status, the characters are ultimately part of the same family — the human family.
There are happy marriages and adulterous dalliances, good doctors and bad, honest workers and self-serving crooks, but there's no escaping the reality that everybody is connected. Zacarías even adds some same-sexing kissing to the mix in one of the play's jaunty surprises that keep the audience from getting ahead of the story.
Valenzuela, the artistic director of the Latino Theater Company and the Los Angeles Theatre Center and head of the MFA directing program at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, delivers a directing master class at South Coast Rep. His staging, superbly balancing ebullience with control, sustains the rapid momentum while simultaneously honoring and parodying telenovela style.
The flair of Valenzuela's production is accentuated by Robert Barry Fleming's choreography, which has the actors float across the stage with their arms aloft after finishing a scene. Julie Weiss' frolicsome costumes and Pablo Santiago's lighting complement Couture's sharply executed set design.
But it's the cast that makes "Destiny of Desire" such a delight. It seems unfair to single out individual performers when everyone is working so tunefully together, but Bocanegra's earthy Hortencia, Fernández's astringent Sister Sonia, Livier's vixenish Fabiola and Enrikez's amorous Sebastián fill out their roles with delicious robustness. America's Pilar and North's Victoria add just enough tartness to their portrayals of the ingénues to keep the sentiment from becoming too sweet.
The communal spirit of Zacarías' play, in short, is beautifully embodied in this humorous tribute to telenovelas — that frowned upon populist entertainment, which shimmers here with majestic theatrical artistry.
'Destiny of Desire'
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends: Nov 13
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Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
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