Telenovelas and Trumpery

destiny-of-desire-ds.jpgEduardo Enrikez and Esperanza America in "​​​Destiny of Desire." Photo by ​Debora Robinson/SCR.

The telenovela genre, that hotbed of steamy romance, becomes embroiled in a fervent embrace with the theater in "Destiny of Desire," Karen Zacarias' wildly funny play at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

The director of this rambunctious coupling is Jose Luis Valenzuela, better known as the man who runs Latino Theater Company and the venue that houses it, downtown's city-owned Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Just last month, I wrote about Valenzuela's company's signature production of Evelina Fernandez's complete "A Mexican Trilogy" at LATC. Now, with "Destiny of Desire" following in rapid succession, Valenzuela is indisputably the theatrical director of the moment in Greater LA.

In recent years Valenzuela has become known for a music- and movement-accented style, even though he doesn't do musicals per se. It was evident in "Dementia" and "Solitude" and "Premeditation," other works by Fernandez that Valenzuela staged. Their collaboration achieved its culmination (so far) in "A Mexican Trilogy."

"Destiny of Desire" adapts this style to the work of a different playwright, Zacarias, who is based in DC, where Valenzuela directed its premiere last year at Arena Stage. But Fernandez isn't missing from the current incarnation of the Valenzuela style. She's onstage, playing a pivotal character in "Destiny."

The heightened music and choreography, plus similarly imaginative visual designs, transport the telenovela-based material out of the flat-screen TV into the deeper perspectives of the stage. So does Zacarias' script, which is supposedly set in "an abandoned theatre in Orange County," not in the Mexican state where the narrative ostensibly takes place. So we see the actors moving scenery and operating spotlights from the sidelines. Brief spoken factoids and other observations break the fourth wall and offer Brechtian commentary on the events taking place.

The events themselves are compressed and paced in the terms of brisk parody, and the resulting laughter is welcomed. But the class distinctions and seductions and coincidences of the story also operate on their own terms quite well, faintly echoing similar plot twists in Roman and Shakespearean comedy.

The collaboration between Valenzuela and some of his usual actors with South Coast and with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (which is where this productions is headed next) is similar to the proposed collaboration on "A Mexican Trilogy" that I suggested Center Theatre Group should pursue with Valenzuela and company, in order to bring the trilogy to a larger LA audience. Now that I've seen "Destiny of Desire" in Costa Mesa, I'll add that CTG and others might want to consider presenting it, too, in LA, where it should find a large and receptive audience.

By the way, I mentioned last month that one probable reason why the audience for the LA run of the completed "Trilogy" was limited was because the Los Angeles Times didn't review it. However, the Times' Charles McNulty wrote a rave notice of "Destiny of Desire" at South Coast. It's bizarre for the Times theater critic to review Valenzuela's work in Costa Mesa but not at LATC, Valenzuela's home base, located just a few blocks from the Times. What's up with that, Times editors?

If "Destiny of Desire" is a masterful blend of styles and subject, CTG's premiere of "Vicuña," at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, isn't up to that standard. Jon Robin Baitz's play is apparently supposed to mock, explore and reflect on the Trump campaign just as "Destiny" mocks, explores and reflects on the telenovela. But it's bogged down by its setting in the luxurious atelier of a celebrity suit-maker.

vicuna-ctg.jpgVicuña. Photo: Craig Schwartz.

We're supposed to believe that the Trump character, here named Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), is willing to spend a lot of time and take important meetings in this atelier, just as he should be preparing for his final debate. Not only does this seem rather implausible (surely Trump would bring the tailor to his own digs in Trump Tower), but the decision fails to capture the "if it's Tuesday, this must be Tallahassee" quality of a presidential campaign, in which the candidates are continuously flying from one battleground to another, sometimes dealing with multiple crises simultaneously.

The play initially seems to be a realistic comedy, set in this one questionable location, but then the parody elements become broader in the second act, not always convincingly. Of course we've all witnessed some "unbelievable" (to use a favorite Trump word) moments in Trump's campaign, which is to say unbelievably brash or unbelievably bad, but not surprisingly, such moments feel more alarming and authentic coming from Trump himself than from the computer of a preaching-to-the-choir playwright.

"Vicuña" is ultimately competing against the Trump campaign itself, at least until after Election Day. Then, its run will continue through Nov 20. In those post-election weeks, the play could seem either compelling or irrelevant, depending too much on what happens in real life.

A Margulies festival

the-apartment-lorch-ds.jpg"The Model Apartment." Photo: Jeff Lorch.

LA has seen two recent revivals of Donald Margulies plays: "The Model Apartment" at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood and "Shipwrecked!" at International City Theatre in Long Beach.

"The Model Apartment" is the heavyweight here - literally so, in that the play's central metaphor is the physical as well as psychological burden of Holocaust memories on a daughter of two survivors. In the 1980s, Neil and Lola are trying to escape their disturbed adult daughter by moving from New York to Florida, just as they once tried to escape their own memories by moving from Europe to America. Unfortunately, their daughter has inherited and intensified their angst, and she won't let her parents go. Soon after they enter the "model apartment" of the Florida development where they hope to move, she shows up in the middle of the night, with a boyfriend in tow.

"The Model Apartment" opened in 1988 at Los Angeles Theatre Center, but it didn't reach New York until 1995. I saw the LATC production, but my vague memory of it is that it wasn't nearly as powerful as Marya Mazor's revival at the Geffen. The intimacy of the Geffen's smaller space may be part of the reason for that, but Margulies discussed another possibility in a Jewish Journal interview last month -- he said the actress who played the daughter at LATC refused to recite her character's concluding monologue, and he regrets that he gave in to her demand.

Whatever the reasons, at the Geffen "The Model Apartment" is harrowing, creating considerable emotional impact in its relatively brief running time. I'll now think of it as one of Margulies' best plays.

"Shipwrecked!" is also relatively brief, and it's much lighter than "Model Apartment," but it also has a connection to Holocaust survivor stories. When Margulies was researching a movie about an impostor who pretended to have survived the Holocaust, he came upon the tale of Louis de Rougemont, a Victorian author and celebrity who greatly embellished his supposedly true-life South-Seas adventure tales but was ultimately exposed as a fraud.

Margulies' take on the tale has three actors - one playing de Rougemont and two playing everyone else, without elaborate sets. I enjoyed the original South Coast production in 2007 and its subsequent reprise (more or less) at the Geffen. The revival in Long Beach doesn't add or subtract much of anything from my earlier impressions, but it probably satisfied those who are in the mood for a gently ironic divertissement.

More by Don Shirley:
Previous blog post: Garcetti and Measure M
Next blog post: Faith in the electoral system
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed