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BWW Reviews: West Coast Premiere EL NOGALAR Sizzles at the Fountain

El Nogalar
by Tanya Saracho
directed by Laurie Woolery
Fountain Theatre
through March 11

Tanya Saracho's El Nogalar means The Pecan Orchard in English, so its similarity to Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard rings a bell even before one sees the play. There are differences between the two, of course. Saracho has taken out most of Chekhov's male characters and leaves but one: Lopez (Justin Huen) - Lopakhin in Cherry Orchard - the grandson of servants who has risen to sudden power and wealth through Mexico's drug cartel. It's not the Russian aristocratic middle class who have lost out to the rising lower class as in Chekhov, where the bank forecloses on the Ranevsky estate, but the Mexican drug dynasty that has contaminated all Mexican citizens, allowing the poor to usurp control and money - Saracho calls it new money, Facebook money. Now in a splendidly directed and acted production at the Fountain Theatre, this West Coast premiere sizzles with earthy passion and sensuality.

It is amazing that Saracho felt the Latin connection as she studied Chekhov's plays. She saw in his female characters the whining, complaining nature of Latin women and felt it would translate perfectly to an adaptation taking place in Modern day Mexico. One thinks of Chekhov's Three Sisters or Federico Garcia Lorca's Casa de Bernarda Alba as Dunia (Sabina Zuniga Varela), Valeria (Isabelle Ortega), Anita (Diana Romo) and Maite (Yetta Gottesman) complain about their losses, long for a better life, or a return to the former one, and seeth with passion, three of them attracted to the same man, Memo or Guillermo Lopez (Huen). As in Chekhov, Maite and her daughters lose Hacienda Los Nogales amd are left in despair, both penniless and homeless. The servants Lopez and Dunia triumph, also as in Chekhov, but in this play in an openly sensual, much anticipated intertwining. The sexual tension in El Nogalar is so akin to Garcia Lorca and is most definitely Spanish, and beautifully, poetically expressed by Saracho's fine writing, which provides more layers than just the obvious restructuring of the class system.
Under Woolery's detailed direction, the ensemble pull out full fledged passionate work. Maite, though the mother, is still beautiful, as described by Lopez, and Gottesman is perfectly cast. She brings a true sense of Latin pride and vengefulness to the character. Ortega is a standout as Valeria. She makes us witness her deep-seated pain, sexual repression and longing from the very beginning. Valera as Dunia is also a standout. Hers is a tricky character to play, as she feigns loyalty with a burgeoning sense of new-found freedom beneath. We sense her  possible come-uppence as she strives to speak better English and to utilize the Internet. Valera makes her a sensually smart cookie. Huen is appropriately confused as Lopez, remembering past simplicity and unsure of his new command, and Romo as Anita exudes to the letter the spoiled whining little rich girl, who was forced to ride in 'economy class'.
Frederica Nascimento's remarkable set design is a starkly decorated and sparsely lit former Spanish mans - with the stage floor opening to a pit beneath used in one scene for barbecuing a goat, made vivid with great lighting effects by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz - and Garry Lennon's costumes suit each character, as in the plain look for Valeria, but the vibrant red party dress for Maite.

This wonderful Nogalar, with Spanish and Spanglish phrases sprinkled throughout  - that definitely do not impede listeners' comprehension - has a rich poetic hue, as with, to quote but one of many metaphors, 'the locusts raping the trees' of the orchard to describe the cartel taking control. It is beautifully written and executed  by an outstanding director and cast. A truly great evening of theatre!

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