BWW Review: DON'T EAT THE MANGOS at Magic Theatre Uncovers a Puerto Rican Family's Dark Legacy in a Gorgeous Production
There are some plays, even enjoyable ones, that you forget almost instantly after seeing them. There are others you find yourself thinking of for days afterwards, still mulling them over, savoring certain moments, revisiting their ambiguities and unlocking their mysteries. "Don't Eat the Mangos" by Ricardo Pérez González is just that kind of play. In a gorgeous world premiere production at the Magic Theatre, "Mangos" slowly and subtly grabs hold of you, and has you constantly rethinking your assumptions about the characters and even the nature of the play itself. It is definitely a comedy, but it is also a kitchen sink drama, complete with an actual kitchen sink upstage center. It is grounded in the mundane details of family life, yet there are also occasional flights of poetry and imagery that are more akin to magic realism. It is sometimes tender and lyrical, yet there are startling flashes of darkness and violence as well. Family secrets are unearthed that make you re-evaluate relationships you thought you already knew, but it's never about the surprise factor of those secrets so much as it is about how the characters choose to act on their newfound knowledge. In the end, it's about transcending the effects of an ugly legacy that's been passed from one generation to the next.
Because so much of the play hinges on the revelation of secrets, it is a challenge to describe the story in any detailed way (no spoilers here!). What I can say is that it's set in a working-class home on the outskirts of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Three adult daughters are gathered to look after their ailing parents, a mother with cancer and a father who is even closer to death. The eldest of the daughters still lives in the family home, charged with the responsibility of daily care of her parents while alternately resenting her role and also being strangely protective of it. So far, it sounds like any number of plays and movies you may have seen but let me assure you it ultimately is not. It goes in several surprising directions as it unfolds over just 90 minutes and ends in a tableau that is at once quietly beautiful, tentatively hopeful, oddly unsettling, and ultimately healing - in short, a perfect crystallization of this family's specific journey. González' writing feels fresh and specific to these characters in this particular place. It is funny, warm and often disturbing. It is also one of those rare plays that I wish were just a bit longer in order to give us more time to marinate in the play's themes.
The production is a wonder on all counts. As is so often the case with the Magic, the design credits are superlative. The contributions of the entire design team work together to create a believable and also mystical world for the characters to inhabit. I just can't say enough good things about Tanya Orellan's set that manages to be both credibly grungy and still attractive and interesting. Among its many deft touches are a faded, worn tile floor and an overgrown mango tree that has insinuated itself into the very structure of the house in a way that is both menacing and beautiful - a perfect visual representation of the ethos of this family. Bryn Almli's costumes, Chris Lundahl's lighting and Sara Huddleston's sound are all wonderfully in sync to create a complete world that never steals focus from the actors.
The five-member cast under David Mendizábal's pitch-perfect direction really brings the play to life. They play off each other beautifully and are completely believable as a close knit if seriously problematic family. I've personally never been to Puerto Rico, but they are so grounded in specific behaviors that I felt like I know these people. It is also impressive just as a matter of technique how the actors are able to pull off some tricky scenes incorporating stage action that is simultaneously humorous and horrifying without straining our belief in their characters.
Yetta Gottesman is a revelation as eldest daughter Ismelda, who is so much more than the downtrodden martyr she first appears to be and is also the focus of the stunning final tableau. Elena Estér and Marilet Martinez as her younger sisters provide a nice Yin and Yang as the family members who have escaped the daily misery of their parents' lives. Wilma Bonet as matriarch Mami brings has a paradoxical gravitas and lightness that allow her to beautifully underplay some key moments. And a special shout out to Julian López-Morillas as Papi. This is the kind of role invariably described as "thankless" since his dyspeptic character has the fewest lines, is almost thoroughly unlikable and generally confined to a sickbed. But you would never know that from the nuance and utter believability that Lopez-Morillas brings to the role.
It is also bears mentioning that "Don't Eat the Mangos" is the final world premiere to be produced at the Magic under Loretta Greco's tenure as Artistic Director. She has continued the Magic's long history of developing new works by interesting and provocative playwrights, often from underrepresented communities, and ensuring they are given the first-rate productions they deserve. May this mission continue long after Ms. Greco has moved on.
(Photos by Jennifer Reiley)
"Don't Eat the Mangos" runs through Sunday, March 22nd at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Bldg. D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123. Tickets and further information available at www.MagicTheatre.org or by calling (415) 441-8822.