BWW Review: South Coast Rep Lovingly Skewers Telenovelas in DESTINY OF DESIRE
Telenovelas---those ultra-dramatic, over-the-top episodic TV dramas that are notably popular among Spanish language households---are arguably one of the most celebrated, obsessed-over forms of entertainment in the world. Viewers are often so searingly invested in the lives of their favorite (or reviled) characters in these shows that they can't help but tune in weekly (and, sometimes, daily) to get their fix.
Though they are certainly rooted in early American soap operas, telenovelas are by far not as quiet nor as subtle by comparison; rather, they are populated with such exaggerated characters and situations that are much more overtly colorful, passionate, erratic, and deeply consumed with emotions. And, yes, they are, of course, enormously entertaining---which is perhaps why many of the traits that make them so obsession-worthy among its rabid fans have seeped their way onto Scandal-like programming stateside (two of my favorite shows of this century, in fact, were translated from earlier telenovelas: Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin).
But, of course, the very aspects that make telenovelas so uniquely entertaining also contribute to why telenovelas are such easy targets for comedic parody and lampooning. As these shows layer one outlandish scene over another, their histrionics lay the groundwork for funny examination.
Lovingly skewering the not-so-subtle art of telenovelas, Karen Zacarías' winning play DESTINY OF DESIRE---now being performed at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through November 13---compresses an entire series' worth of over-the-top melodramatic goodness into a two-act play that, not surprisingly, comes off as an intentionally hilarious comedy.
The outrageousness of multiple plot twists and criss-crossing WTF moments synonymous with telenovelas are all here---overacted and over-emoted in their full glory. Helming this complex labyrinth of multiple story arcs is director José Luis Valenzuela, who, along with a terrific ensemble cast manages to keep everything moving swiftly without any lag in the forward trajectory. There's a lot to get through, and, boy, things do take swift turns in this wacky world.
As a very young kid myself growing up in the very Latin-influenced Philippines, I too was exposed to (and was absolutely mesmerized by) the country's own home-grown versions of the telenovela. The characters may speak in a different language, but they do somehow manage to grapple with the same obstacles all telenovela characters must endure: douche-y rich people, villainous bosses/overlords, cheating spouses/lovers, secret murder plots, scandalous relationships, surprise pregnancies, drinking and drug-use aftermaths, deranged jealousy, etc. Not surprisingly, I even later developed an appreciation for American soaps like Knots Landing and As The World Turns as I grew older, which I found to be the closest, most kindred cousins to those telenovelas I liked as a dreamy, hope-filled child.
This probably explains why I thoroughly enjoyed DESTINY OF DESIRE, not only as a brilliantly executed comedy about serious "drama" but also because it doesn't simply poke fun of the genre---the play celebrates and takes delight in its very nature.
The tongue-in-cheek comedy starts even before the play officially begins. As the program notes, the setting---designed by François-Pierre Couture with lighting design provided by Pablo Santiago---is "an abandoned theater in Orange County," even though the play's fictional narrative actually happens south of the border in Bellarica, Mexico, the "Monaco of Mexico."
As audience members take to their seats, the play's actors are scattered about the theater, some doing preparatory "warm-ups" on stage, while others are mingling amongst audience members while out of character (one actor, walking up the aisles and casually conversing with audience members even correctly suspected me as a theater critic at one point!) Meanwhile, members of the crew (or are they cast members?) are in plain view checking lights, standing mics, and other props, suggesting as if we are a live studio audience watching the pre-show preparation for the filming of a telenovela (in reality, telenovelas don't have a live audience the way sitcom tapings do).
To our delight, the over-affected overacting (and, at times, hilariously awkward acting) begins quickly and never lets up. You can really tell that the cast is having as much fun performing the material as we are watching them do it.
And, as one might expect, the plot is telenovela-perfect, complete with vintage-looking title cards held up by various cast members to announce each upcoming "episode." In addition, members of this hardworking ensemble act as stage hands, too, throughout the play, placing and aiming stage lights, moving set pieces (with enhanced flourish and added ballet moves), and even furiously hoisting fabrics to simulate weather or, in most cases, added drama. Even the cast's costumes---designed by Julie Weiss---have hints of playful amusement.
As icing to the cake, there are several pop culture, newsworthy, and even local OC references peppered into the dialogue as well---including a witty jab at, yes, Donald Trump. The assembled all-Latino cast cleverly exudes hints of an amateurish, community theater vibe to the proceedings, adding to the play's overall hilarity.
I'd prefer not to spoil too much of the many plot specifics, because, frankly, they're just too juicy to reveal prematurely. Much of the joy in experiencing DESTINY OF DESIRE is seeing these interconnected arcs unravel live on stage and seeing them get even more convoluted as the play keeps going---with one situation affecting all situations that follow as a cascading avalanche of Aaaccckkk!
So, to tease your palette, here are the basics: The story begins on one especially stormy night (the sound effect, natch, provided by shaking a flat piece of metal). Two expectant mothers---each from opposing ends of the economic spectrum---arrive at the same hospital at the same time. Both are about to give birth.
One mother, Hortencia del Rio (Elisa Bocanegra)---with farmer husband Ernesto del Rio (Mauricio Mendoza) by her side---gives birth to a healthy baby girl. In another room, demanding blonde rich-bitch Fabiola Castillo (deliciously over-the-top Ruth Livier) gives birth to a not-so-healthy baby girl of her own.
Fearful that her imperfect baby won't be accepted by her wealthy, much-older husband, local casino mogul Armando Castillo (Cástulo Guerra), Fabiola threatens and demands the attending doctor, the greedy, easily-bribed Jorge Mendoza (Ricardo Gutierrez) to switch her tiny, weak-hearted baby with the random healthier newborn in the next room. Witnessing it all is Sister Sonia (Evelina Fernández), who, after much hesitation, finally complies to the baby-switcheroo demand, mostly to give Hortencia's child the best possible chance at a much better upbringing that the del Rios could never provide for the baby on their own (and, besides, Fabiola's sick baby isn't expected to live much longer, apparently). But as a gesture of "good" faith, Fabiola agrees to employ Hortencia as one of her maids in her luxurious, palatial estate to at least keep her in the same vicinity. Similarly, Dr. Mendoza vows to keep tabs on the frail baby now in Hortencia's care.
Eighteen years later, the story flashes forward to show that the two babies have both transformed into beautiful, self-assured grown women, both with smarts and strong ambitions. Pillar Castillo (Esperanza America)---raised as Fabiola and Armando's daughter---is surprisingly humble and kind, despite her upbringing. And, surprise! Victoria Maria del Rio (Ella Saldana North), who despite continuous challenges to her health (well, okay, she does kinda need a heart transplant), is very much alive and well, even though she was raised by Hortencia and Ernesto in much more meager accommodations.
Thanks to the gods of destiny---and the playfully clever mind of Zacárias---the two switched ladies, of course, meet and become fast friends (and, uh, even slightly more in a few scenes). This tight friendship, of course, introduces a plethora of Oh No! moments for everyone around them---particularly the continually scheming Fabiola.
Pillar and Victoria's friendship also inadvertently complicates each of their own respective newly formed romances. Pillar just met a boy in the park, Sebastián (Eduardo Enrikez), an ambitious young hottie who has some fresh ideas in revitalizing the gambling industry (oh, but, wait there's more to him than meets the eye!). Victoria, meanwhile, strikes up a romance with Dr. Jorge Mendoza's kinder son, Dr. Diego Mendoza (Fidel Gomez) during---well, actually, after---a rather traumatic hospital visit.
Soon revenge, infidelity, murder, emergency surgery, a freak sandstorm, a secret love triangle, another secret love triangle, possible (ewww) incest, and even many secret identity revelations spill out like a crazy, non-stop conveyor belt of wackadoo---and the audience is eating it up.
Every so often, the play even transforms into a musical, with songs composed by musical director Rosino Serrano, who sits behind a piano parked in the back corner of the stage during the entire show. Full-blown production numbers break out here and there which features eclectic choreography by Robert Barry Fleming. The second act opener even sounds very LES MISERABLES-esque!
Because the situations are so wildly outlandish and so far-removed from the real world, the cast often breaks the fourth wall intermittently throughout the play to orate bits of statistical knowledge and researched factoids---rather matter-of-factly with only just a slight wink---directly to the audience relating to the scene we're currently watching. A few feel a bit unnecessarily intrusive, but the majority of these little asides generate genuine, additional laughs to an already zany scene in progress.
And, my gosh, even each scene change/transition is an amusing event in itself. The cast doesn't just place a doorway or a curtain or a set piece down at their marks with determined precision, they frikkin ballet dance (!) these things to their places on the stage (the hoisting of the enormous chandelier as the set transforms to the Castillo mansion is a particularly funny, exaggerated sequence).
It's clear that Zacárias and director Valenzuela aim to make every possible moment of DESTINY OF DESIRE as outrageous and as over-the-top as they can possibly be, and, for the most part, the creative pair succeeds. Overall, the play is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
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Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory. Review also published in OnStage.
Karen Zacarías' DESTINY OF DESIRE, a co-production with the Goodman Theatre continues its final performances at South Coast Repertory through November 13, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.