Theater Add comments

In November of last year, I came back to Manila, where I was born and lived till my early twenties, for the first time after 13 years of living in the United States.  It was a joyous, heart-bursting, reinvigorating trip, but it was also an intensely dislocating one.  Not only has the city physically changed in the more than a decade I’ve been away, which made navigating through it’s chaotic, rambunctious streets (it’s a grand city that is as big as Chicago) both thrilling and nerve-wracking, but I’ve changed as well, in terms of some of my outlook, beliefs, and social expectations.  Some of the things I grew up with – intrinsic characteristics of Filipino society such as the rigid and self-perpetuating social stratification, a general aura of languor and fatalism, a subtle but intentional show-offyness among those who “have” – bothered and discombobulated me.  How can my Manila friends shrug away what I was seeing and hearing?  Why can’t I shrug it away like them, when none of these things are foreign to me?  Have I forgotten how to maneuver through the social rules of engagement in a complicated milieu such as Manila’s?  Am I now too “Western”?  That’s why Tanya Saracho’s robust, electrifying, big-hearted new play El Nogalar, now receiving a too-short world premiere run at the Goodman Theatre as a co-production with Teatro Vista, is so resonant and affecting for me.  In its vividly painted characters searching for the “right” balance of identity in a borderless, immigrant, socially-permeable world, I see parts of myself.

A woman and her two grown daughters, after living abroad for more than 15 years, return to their ancestral home and its pecan orchards in a small Mexican town, close to Monterrey.  But things have changed drastically: the town is now in the hands of drug cartels, their fellow “old rich” families have abandoned the place, their former helper/handyman Lopez is now a big shot with the drug lords, and the family has no more money of their own to keep the drug cartel from taking over their vast orchards.  The play is supposedly “inspired” by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but five minutes into the zesty, ingenious first scene, when Lopez, the former handyman, and Dunia, the housemaid, fight, flirt and taunt each other while waiting for the family to arrive from the airport, and, at the same time, clearly depict the town’s state of mind and its social centrifugal forces, you’re not really caring about Chekhov.  Because I would argue, that as a globally-engaged 21st century theatergoer, Saracho’s astounding play is clearly the more relevant one, because it is broader and more ambitious, with themes that are anchored on the concerns and questions of our world today – the prevalence of violence, the changing sources of affluence and its impact on class distinctions, the search for an individual identity that goes beyond which country issued your passport.  These are themes that Chekhov and his 19th century Russian aristocrats cannot really illuminate.

Saracho’s writing is top-notch, with crisp, crackling, very contemporary dialogue, and beautifully-constructed scenes that ring true even as they veer through a myriad of emotions, from unaffected humor to touching poignancy (for example, the scene when Valeria, the older daughter, and Dunia cook goat in the traditional Mexican way for the homecoming feast).  If I have a criticism of the play, it is that Saracho has packed it with more topics than it can adequately hold for its 80 minute running time.  But what I find particularly impressive is Saracho’s meticulously detailed characterizations:  Maite, the matriarch, clinging to her aristocratic hauteur and old way of life and social entitlements; Valeria, pragmatic and a survivor, due perhaps to the fact that she returned to the country several years earlier and has had the time to fully comprehend and accept the undeniable realities of current-day Mexico; Anita, the younger daughter, who has lived in New York for 15 years and have difficulty identifying as a either a Mexican, an American, or a combination of both; Lopez and his complicated feelings toward a family he was socially inferior to in the past, but which he now has significant economic and social advantages over; and Dunia and her desire to break away from the cycle of violence and impoverishment that is the way of life of the town.  These are strong, vibrant, authentic characters that are very much distinct from the self-involved American urban twentysomethings, the troubled Shepard or flawed Mamet heroes, or the showy Williams heroines that many other Chicago theater companies have had on their stages recently.

These characters demand a full-blooded, larger than life cast, and El Nogalar does not disappoint.  Decked out in sleek, colorful outfits like an Almodovar leading lady, Charin Alvarez brilliantly captures Maite’s grandness and delusion.  Sandra Delgado’s Valeria is touching in her martyr-like desire to protect her family while longing to find her own enduring happiness (and she is so heartbreaking when Maite confronts her with a secret about Lopez near the end of the play).  Christina Nieves marvelously depicts the discombobulating state of many immigrants:  drawn to your roots, yet at times repelled by the “foreignness” of them, and confused by not really belonging anywhere (she’s riveting as she indignantly recounts the generalized, inaccurate view of “Mexicans” as a group that some Americans have).  Yunuen Pardo is excellent as the complex Dunia – both loyalist and protector of Maite’s family, but also cunning betrayer to further her own survival.  These are fantastic, memorable female performances.  As the lone male lead, Carlo Lorenzo Garcia as Lopez, more than holds his own.  I’ve been a big fan of Garcia’s work over the years (like Gael Garcia Bernal, he is a character actor in a leading man’s body), and his Lopez is a richly-drawn character – both Grand Poobah and little boy lost, a successful man who will always be reminded of his humble, subservient beginnings by the mere existence of Maite and her family, he epitomizes the contradictions and social difficulties of contemporary Mexico.

Cecilie Keenan’s direction is controlled and unfussy, and Brian Sydney Bembridge’s minimalist set (anchored by a meticulously detailed dollhouse that stands for the ancestral home) feels so apt. They, together with the extraordinary cast, allow for Saracho’s dazzling, one-of-a-kind playwriting voice to shine.

I hoped a lot of Chicago theatergoers heard Saracho’s voice.  I am dismayed that the Goodman gave El Nogalar a limited run- it’s at the Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, only until this Sunday, April 24.  This is a play that should have gone on for several more weeks.  Go out and get your tickets for this weekend!


Leave a Reply

WP Theme & Icons by N.Design Studio
Entries RSS Comments RSS Log in