How do you parody that which already feels like a parody in its natural state? How do you give an over-the-top performance while playing the role of an actor who’s already so over-the top that he’s come round the other side? And how do you make serious points about relationships, feminism and immigration while simultaneously drawing laughs from the audience?
Playwright Karen Zacarías is uniquely qualified to answer these questions-she and a cast of agile actors have sorted out the impossible, accomplishing all of these high-wire feats and more in Destiny Of Desire, currently playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through October 18th.
Zacarías wrote the uproariously funny play about a year ago using a “show within show” device that takes us into the world of Telenovelas, Latin America’s version of daytime soaps.
Like all good yarns, the story begins on a “dark and stormy night” where two newborn babies are about to be switched in the hospital. The robust baby girl belonging to the peasant couple is about to trade places with a sickly smaller girl who has just been birthed by the society wife across the hall. The farm workers are none the wiser, but the fabulously naughty Fabiola Castillo (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey glamps it up con much gusto) has enlisted the help of a deceitful doctor to help her pull off the switch, fearing that her husband, the wealthy casino owner, would never accept a less than perfect child.
That’s the basic set up for what will be two acts of double-crosses, illicit affairs and a subplot that flies so close to incest that you shudder each time a hilarious near-miss occurs. If it mattered, you’d need a Venn diagram to keep up with all the overlapping plotlines. But the point here is laughter, release, and fun.
Those of us over a certain age will have fond memories of Carol Burnett skits jarred loose by our own cackling. And like the beloved sketches by Ms. Burnett, the second act of Destiny Of Desire lives by the dictionary definition of “farce.” That’s a good thing.
There are sporadic song and dance numbers that work as perfect punctuation. This isn’t a musical, strictly speaking, but there are some killer singers in the cast; Nicholas Rodriguez (playing a hunk who may be falling in love with the wrong girl) belts out a show stopper in the second act that is some kind of sublime fusion of Elvis and El Vez, with a sprinkle of Slim Whitman thrown in.
But Ms. Zacarías has also put in an element that makes this play a perfect choice for Arena’s offering to the Women’s Voices Theater Festival: substance. At various intervals, the action stops while an actor (it rotates) intones some statistics into the microphone. The stats are surely real, but as they are delivered strictly deadpan, the data coaxes chuckles—then, just as quickly, the action starts again. It’s a stroke of brilliance, introducing vitamins into cotton candy.
There are other themes of female empowerment that sashay their way into this fictional beach town of Bellarica, Mexico; as the two girls have grown into young womanhood, they speak of wanting to be educated and wanting to control their own destiny (or, for that matter, ,their own desires). Esperanza America and Elia Saldaña prove to be versatile performers—they sing, they dance, they act! The entire cast of Latino actors charms and seduces—even the villains.
Destiny of Desire continues at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through October 16th. For more information and tickets, please visit: ArenaStage.org