Sunday, July 1, 2018

"Destiny of Desire": Day 1, Play 1, Theatre Eddys at 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Destiny of Desire
Karen Zacarías

Esperanza America, Ella Saldana North, Al Espinosa & Fidel Gomez
Babies switched at birth; mistaken identities; and a rumored murder of a wife in order to marry a beauty queen.  Rich and poor relatives whose lives intersect without knowing; love at first sight more than once; and a nun who knows more than she ever lets on while doing more than even God to change lives. 

Shakespeare?  Maybe.  After all this is the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 

Eduardo Enrikez & Vilma Sliva
But wait, there is also a hunky guy named Sebastian who keeps stripping off his shirt.  There is a Cinderella element with a midnight deadline and a lost shoe as well as glamor and bared shoulders and even a hint of S&M.  And every once in a while, every one breaks into erotic, fast-heeled Latin dances, singing songs that have faintly familiar refrains -- even for those who do not know Spanish.  And, incredulous, life-changing secrets spill out time and again faster than the rushing waters of Niagara Falls. 

This is not Shakespeare.  It’s telenovela except this episode is not on the TV screen (as it is every day for one-third of the earth’s population).  This telenovela is on stage at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Karen Zacarías’ laugh-out-loud Destiny of Desire – a sonic-speed-paced, zany comedy with non-too-subtle messages about the good that can happen when women take charge of their own destinies (and those of the men around them).  
Adriana Sevahn Nichols & Eddie Lopez

The worlds of two families -- one poor and one rich – upend when their baby girls are purposely switched at birth by a rich mother, an evil doctor, and a reluctantly consenting nun.  The nun understands that the real mother of the sicker baby -- the blond Latina who goes into labor dressed in spiked heels, diamond earrings, and sparkling evening gown -- will never nurse her own sick baby girl back to health.  That weakling is given by the nun and the evil Dr. Mendoza to a poor farmer and his wife, even as the baby girl is dying.  

The kind, new mother blows her own breath into the baby that she believes is hers, aided by the nun – positioned on the side stage – who makes a baby’s crying sounds into a waiting microphone just as everyone thinks the baby has died.  Suddenly the dead baby is now alive, making this one of dozens of devices that the playwright and director team up to ensure this staged telenovela is as wild and wooly as any that television has ever seen on its screen.

When the story suddenly moves eighteen years into the future, the poorer, hard-working mother, Hortencia, is now maid to the richer, egocentric mother, Fabiola.  Hortencia is also nanny to Fabiola’s beautiful daughter, Pilar, who is actually Hortencia’s daughter.  The daughter that Hortencia has raised with care (Victoria Maria, whom she believes is her natural child) has fought health problems her entire life, undergoing multiple operations by the still-evil Dr. Mendoza, who has carnal designs on Hortencia and has invented reasons to cut repeatedly into Victoria in order to stay close to her supposed-mother. 

For any one who thinks that this spider’s web of deceptions is already quite entangled, there has yet to be mention of Fabiola’s having an affair with her husband’s estranged son (and her stepson), Sebastian.  And there are at least another dozen, equally fantastic revelations that will continue to pop into the story right up until the final minutes of the two hours, thirty that fly by like a fast roller coaster ride in a thrill park.  But hey, this is telenovela; and everyone expects nothing less.

Throughout the ups and downs, twists and turns, stops and starts of this ever-crazy sequence of events, Director José Luis Valenzuela -- along with all his creative team -- employs every trick in the book (and then some) to keep the whirlwinds twirling before us.  François-Pierre Couture makes use of sheer, white curtains that constantly flow and swing around the stage like ghosts of the past and dreams of the future.  Others of his many scenic elements -- from doorframes to furniture pieces -- enter swirling in waltzes with actors as partners.  These same actors never just enter the stage without themselves also turning either gracefully or madly in continuous circles -- or perhaps simply moving as if in slow motion. 

Lighting designed by Pablo Santiago reflects in blood red, envy-filled green, or erotic purples against the plaster and brick wall of the back stage as moods and events change in the center and front stages.  Both Mr. Santiago’s lighting and John Zalewski’s designed sound repeatedly herald yet another “rainy and stormy night” when more shocking, horrific events are threatening to occur.  Julie Weiss brings to bear in her costume designs all the expected glitter along with the rich silks and satins that the telenovela wealthy so like to wear as well as the humble, but dignified rags the poor among them must wear.

As part of his direction and as purposely scripted by the playwright, José Luis Valenzuela uses such delicious devices as frequent stop-actions when all actors suddenly look at the audience with wide-eyed, open mouthed expressions as yet another surprise revelation is uttered by one of them.  These are always accompanied by a discordant plop on the keys by pianist Agustín Lara, who plays the background music of Rosino Serrano while watching action from the floor in front of the stage, much like his predecessors once did for silent movies.  Other directorial gems include all who are on stage rewinding a scene in awkward, stilted jerks before replaying the scene one more time for the audience’s double enjoyment.

But none of this rich storehouse of device hilarity and parallels to telenovelas would be worth a dime without a cast that knows how to play the parts with a certain amount of seriousness and sincerity while all the time creating scenes full of overblown melodrama that only increase in their outlandishness as the minutes proceed.  Adriana Sevahn Nichols and Eddie Lopez are truly noble and heart-warming as the working-class parents, Hortencia and Ernesto Del Rio.  They serve as great contrasts to the exaggerated-in-every-respect pair of the wealthy parents that Armando Durán and Vilma Silva play respectively as Armando and Fabiola Castillo, whose combined qualities of evil, erotic, eccentric, and ego-centric are everything that Hortencia and Ernesto are not.  

Ella Saldana North & Esperanza America
Ella Saldana North as Victoria Maria Del Rio and Esperanza America as Pilar Esperanza Castillo have all the glowing qualities of teenage girls who are discovering their first loves as well as a sister she never had but always wanted.  They are each also dramatically excellent (in a telenovela kind of way) in facing shocking realities about parents and themselves that they could never have imagined growing up. 

Eduardo Enrikez is a hunky and handsome Sebastian Jose Castillo who sells with ease his conversion from Fabiola’s gigolo to Victoria’s prince-of-sorts.  Likewise, Fidel Gomez as young and sincere Dr. Diego Mendoza is convincing in every respect as the suddenly starry-eyed pursuer of young Pilar while also being the physician who will perform a life-saving miracle involving his evil-to-the-core dad, Dr. Jorge Mendoza. Al Espinosa is the elder, devil-in-disguise Dr. Mendoza, a sleaze-ball who would also be right at home on the stage as the black-caped, sneering villain in a staged melodrama of old. 

Vilma Silva & Catherine Castellanos
Not to be overlooked is Catherine Castellanos as Sister Sonia, a nun and nurse who is just one of the play’s several women who lassoes the whirlwinds around them to steer towards a destiny she desires (versus ones that fate and men around her try to weasel into being).  Ms. Castellanos is stellar in her role and, like the rest of the cast, brings also a rich singing voice that has a chance to ring forth when the whip-speed actions on the stage suddenly pause to allow one of Rosino Serrano’s songs to ring forth.

As if all the above were not enough to keep an audience both in stitches and to begin to make some points about the power of women (especially immigrant women) to make real change, Karen Zacarías uses an ongoing, Brecht-inspired intervention to remind us that while this is a just stage show, there are related facts and figures in our real lives we need to be paying more close attention. 

In the midst of all the chaos and chuckles, action often stops and someone steps forward (often the nun) to relay a fact to us inspired by something that just happened.  Hearing that “the U.S. imprisons more people than any country in the world with about 1 in every 100 Americans being behind bars” or that “one person dies every day in the desert borders between Mexico and the U.S.” is not meant just to entertain us but to spur us into thought and action beyond the telenovela craziness in front of us. 

Destiny of Desire mirrors in many ways the bizarre, out-of-control world around us that is full of its own stormy nights.  Karen Zacarías is telling us that we, like these women on her well-crafted stage, can in fact take control of our own destinies and not just accept the fates laid out by those evil forces (mostly men) too often in control.  And for that message alone, Destiny of Desire is an important masterpiece of riveting storytelling that is much more than simply telenovela fluff.

Rating: 5 E

Destiny of Desire continues through July 12, 2018 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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