BWW Review: Brave New World - Portland Stage Streams NATIVE GARDENS
In the midst of a dark and anxious time for all theatres, Portland Stage has managed to navigate the rights issues to live stream its production of Karen Zacarias' NATIVE GARDENS, which had begun its run when the pandemic closed everything down. The resulting performance proves a welcome ray of light for Maine's theatre goers: a comedy that uses laser-sharp wit, colorfully contrasting characters, and a measured look at a number of topical issues which are provoked by a timeless conflict.
Zacarias' 2019 comedy involves a classic property dispute between two neighboring couples, who spar over the placement of a fence which separates their yards. But the drama is about far more than the ownership of the two feet of land in question; it is about the clash of values, the perennial questions of belonging and entitlement, subtle racism, misplaced assumptions, and aggressively held principles and preferences - all these represented in the metaphor of the two differing gardens. Zacarias' dialogue is often acerbically funny, and her sense of pacing has a finely tuned, almost circular touch, as the two couples try and fail, try and fail to resolve the issue and ultimately find what brings them together is the early arrival of a baby.
The production, directed by Jade King Carroll, flows smoothly and tightly, alternating both quiet and fiery moments of interaction. Anita Stewart's set is lush and lovely: two backyards and houses separated by a chain link fence - the Del Valles' "a fixer upper" and the Butley's a well manicured home. The Butley's lovingly tended formal garden and the Del Valles' dusty, downtrodden yard, where Tania plans a native garden, are beautifully evoked. Cat Wilson provides the richly hued lighting design - cobalt blues and moonlight or sunny daytimes. Kenisha Kelly creates the simple but characterful costumes, while Seth Asia Sengal adds a fine sound design that underscores all the scenic transitions with lively music. Myles C. Hatch serves as the expert Stage Manager.
The four-person cast demonstrate a strong chemistry among themselves and a well-timed energy in the moments of conflict. Jose-Maria Aguila gives a convincing account of Pablo Del Valle - young, ambitious, yearning to move up quickly in his Washington, DC law firm. As his pregnant wife, Tania, Octavia Chavez-Richmond displays a fiery Latina temperament and a strong sense of how to deliver some of the play's choicest barbs. Laura Houck as Virginia and Mitch Tebo as Frank Butley limn portraits of a suburban couple, resistant to change. At various moments in the drama, one or the other of these four sways our sympathies, and then offends them, as they air their grievances, challenging the audience to asses its thinking on the issues raised.
That Portland Stage was able to navigate the labyrinth of performance rights in this brave new world which the current crisis has plunged the arts - even for this one production - deserves a toast!
Photo courtesy of Portland Stage, Mical Hutson, photographer
NATIVE GARDENS streams until April 12, 2020. For a ticket to view the video, contact Portland Stage at www.portlandstage.org 207-774-0465