Friday, November 11, 2016

Mariela in the Desert (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I want to begin noting one thing.  Pretty soon after the start of Mariela in the Desert, I wanted to read more about this playwright Karen Zacarias. The characters and the situation drew me in that swiftly.

Mariela (Rachel Gonzalez) is the much younger wife of a famous artist named Jose (Vance Valencia).  She lives with and nurses the old man, dying and going blind from diabetes in 1950s Mexico.  Jose snarls and weeps, while Mariela endures.  With them is Jose's older sister Olivia (Denise Blasor), fragile and afraid, clutching the faith her brother and sister-in-law have long since abandoned.  Once this house in the desert had been an oasis of art, a meeting place of the great artists of the day.  Now is seems haunted.

Perhaps literally.  We slowly learn some of this history shaping the passions seething here.  Mariela had never wanted to live here.  After arriving, she'd eventually stopped painting her own works.  Daughter Blanca (Vannessa Vasquez) grew up here but, now in college, hasn't been back in years.  With Jose slowly dying, Mariela has taken extreme measures to get Blanca to come home.  She sent a telegram with a big lie in it.  Blanca arrives with the art Professor (Randy Vasquez) with whom she is involved, and together they churn up the past like archeologists.

But the real (or not-quite-real) ghost is Carlos (Kenneth Lopez), Mariela's son--he died years ago.  A gentle, educationally challenged child, rumors say he runs in the desert now.  Locals claim as much.  Olivia says maybe she's seen him.

Like a mystery story, complete with wonderfully simple flashbacks, truths emerge.  Not The Truth, but some of the truths of these lives. Between the two, for example, it emerges Mariela was always the greater artist.  Jose loved her for that, but could not overcome his own jealousy, not forgive her for giving in to his selfishness. Her patient loyalty is a fortress he seeks to breach, and for much of the play we wonder what it will take?

Just as we wonder about the one great masterpiece everyone agrees Jose produced at the end of his career--"The Blue Barn."  Blanca's Professor reacts in awe upon learning the painting is here, in their house, but vandalized by Jose himself.

Much of the play, much of the drama between all these characters, leads back one way or another to that painting.  That it has such impact we eventually understand--all the more impressive because we never see it.  A nice trick that, because it becomes a masterpiece in our own minds.  Gradually it comes into focus as we see the troubling but not at all harsh relations between Mariela and her children.  As we watch Jose's reaction, as his fame recedes and the desert fails to inspire him, fails to make him paint the beauty he can see in his mind--a gnawing source of despair and rage.

The story and characters made me want things for them, made me eventually start to fear yet desire each revelation.  Frankly amid all this director Robert Beltran and the cast manage a tricky balancing act, rooting all things in a dynamic in the same "vein" as Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill.  Also, and this impresses me in a subtle way, throughout I felt this was not an American story.  Yes, it dealt first, foremost and last of all with the human condition and universal human truths.  But I also found myself entering and embracing a culture, a world, a nation I barely know--Mexico.  That makes it a little more special, at least to me.  Because I felt my soul grow just a little bit, in part simply because I recognized this strange world as home in some way.  A place as human as the inhabitants of it.  As human as I myself, so it feels familiar.

I'm less impressed with the sound design, while the lighting was lovely, and the set didn't quite transport me to the desert. But those are nitpicks.  A tiny bit of research reveals this was one of Zaccarias' early plays.  I'm eager to see some more!

Mariela in the Desert plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with Sundays at 5pm until December 11, 2016 (no performances on Thanksgiving weekend) at Casa 0101, 2102 East First Street, Los Angeles CA 90033.

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