Review: Karen Zacarias' NATIVE GARDENS at The Off-Central Players

This battle of Racism vs Classicism must close March 26th.

Review: A Stunning Take on A Classic Piece, Makes This Top-Notch ALL MY SONS One to Remember at TampaRep

"I grew up in a time where a woman's voice was expressed through her decor. I guess now, it's through her weeds."-Virginia Butley

"Good Fences make Good Neighbors, right?"

The Off-Central Players continue their Spring Season with Karen Zacarias' "hot-button" comedy that packs all of the punches.

Onstage from March 15-26, and directed by Jack Holloway, Native Gardens is not your average comedy. During its prologue, we meet Tanya and Pablo, a young "Millennial," couple having just moved into a well-established neighborhood filled with the most unlikely of neighbors. Tanya is expecting a child anytime, and Pablo is on the partner track at the law firm in which he is dutifully employed. The house they decide to settle down in is a bit of a fixer-upper and is right next door to Frank and Virginia Butley. Frank and Virginia are of an older generation and have an established home in the neighborhood complete with a beautifully, meticulously kept garden.

At the heart of the show's conflict comes a battle of classicism vs. racism, and what truly divides friends and neighbors, when a 2ft section of the property line is disputed. Each side makes its true colors known in battles of ill wills, staunch beliefs, and just the write amount of alcohol. All leading up to a hopeful resolution, and the close of one of the wittiest comedies to premiere as of late.

The folks involved with Native Gardens at The Off-Central Players should be commended for their work here. Not only in Set Design with credit to Alan Mohney, Jr. Also with Lighting Design by Mike Horn, Stage Management by Johnny Garde, and exquisite Direction by one Jack Holloway. All leading up to a near completely sold-out run makes me think that The Off-Central Players have found their niche. Telling true-to- life stories that are not only hysterically funny, but in times heartbreakingly sad, vulnerable, and even chill-inducing. If shows like this and the shows we have seen from them in the past are continued in this format, then the folks at Off-Central Players will put an immovable stamp on the arts scene in the Bay Area and form something not only they, but their patrons/supporters alike can be proud of for time to come.

At its heart, Zacarias' script is full of quick-wit, and sharp-as-a-tack humor leading up to the real moral of the story...what is it that truly makes us human, and allows us to see the human even in those different from ourselves?

At its helm, Roxanne Fay and Ward Smith are exceptional. As Virginia Roxanne steals the show, making the moments especially between her and Tanya impossible to turn away from. Always known for her dramatic roles, and her exceptional presence onstage, Roxanne strikes comedy gold here and it's exciting to see her in this element.

As Frank Butley, Ward Smith commands the stage in all his best curmudgeon fashion. He tends to his garden, and is no-nonsense when it comes to winning. His moments with Pablo are expertly timed down to the final moment, and his scenes with Virginia perfectly display the relationship between a well-established married couple seeking the best for their lives. The moment with the alcohol on the porch is endearing, and we feel for Frank and Virginia despite their curmudgeon tendencies.

As Tanya, Jade Ashlee Rivera makes her Off-Central Players debut. Commanding the stage in every moment opposite Pablo, you feel for her plight. Although her presence in the scenes stands out, and she should be commended for her work here, one thing left me troubled. I had the hardest time believing the pregnancy stunt at the end. Maybe different-sized pregnancy bumps would sufficiently clear this issue up. Obviously this is a continuity issue and nothing to slight her performance, but it makes her plight hard to believe at times. There was also a strange moment involving a silent "extra" character that was not believable at all, when it came to the baby. Imagine if you will the dreadful use of the "baby doll" in the Bradley Cooper film American Sniper.

As Pablo Del Valle, Rey Garcia is exceptional. His moment-to-moment with Jade's Tanya, even Roxanne's Virginia, and Ward's Frank perfectly show that he will stop at nothing to protect his family and what is rightfully his. His delivery is tick for tack level with all the other performers, and makes for an exciting debut.

Jack Holloway's direction is superb. He takes the intimate space of the Off-Central Players and makes a large-scale play such as Zacarias' script work on every level. I had issues with the pregnancy, and some of the timing lagged a bit. With a quick-wit comedy such as this, timing is everything. You can lose your audience at the first sign of lagging in the framework.

Mike Horn's lighting design evoked the perfect back-and-forth between the neighbors. From light to dark, warms and cools, each moment was felt for its own unique moment in time. It's executed masterfully, and we see the exceptional work on display here.

Stage Manager Johnny Garde helped push the show forward and kept the pacing up, even in moments of lag. This is the second endeavor as Stage Manager with the Off- Central Players and it seems the fit is well managed.

Ward Smith and the Off-Central Players have done it again. Proved that if you build it they will come, and audiences have come out in droves to see Zacarias' fine script, displayed at such a Professionally produced level. If you get the chance to experience their work, and are lucky enough to get a ticket, make sure to bid on the "Gnome Raffle," and take a piece of their Native Garden, home to your very own sanctuary. Tickets have been selling out, any remaining availability can be found by visiting Click Here.

"Everything we love is bad, margarine, white rice, Cat Stevens..."

Photo Credit: @DowntownCarol

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