Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mariela in the Desert by Karen Zacarias


By Joe Straw

Mariela in the Desert by Karen Zacarias is a beautifully written play that plays upon desperate emotions - giving life to art.  Reminding us of love, life, and death, the words are a reflection of life - like staring into a mirroring pool of faultless water and honestly seeing the words that best describe you.     

The written words of Zacarias paint both a comedic and melancholy portrait of a family living on a ranch in a Mexican desert. Their lives are similar in the way Anton Chekov’s characters in Three Sisters want to leave for Moscow.  Happily listening to the words, understanding the emotions, and feeling the want, Zacarias may be the Latina Chekov of our times.

One comes to realize after so many years that artists are not truthful.  The artist’s life is one that has to be an exaggerated actuality, moving the truth meter to the extreme, farther to the right or to the left, but never in the middle because that is left for the heart, the core of truth.

Casa 0101 and Angel City Theater Ensemble presents Mariela in the Desert, written by Karen Zacarias, directed by Robert Beltran, and produced by Emmanuel Deleage through December 11, 2016.

The year is 1951 in a rustic ranch in the Northern desert of Mexico.  There is little to show at this ranch, with no running water, and little in the way of electricity.  Art is scattered in the home in the way they move the heart, paintings on the walls, and a special easel on display.

A lone bed (stage right) melts into the rustic floor, with bed sheets that may have been white in a previous carnation but are now discolored brown.   Jose lies on that bed, drips of perspiration fall into the lines of his face as he waits for the dramatic and the inevitable.  It can’t come any sooner for him.  He is old with many ailments, and he suffers while waiting for his wife Mariela (Rachel Gonzalez) to return from her errand.  He waits for his glorious bath.  

Mariela returns and methodically takes the sponge, dips it into the cold water, and squeezes the excess water into the pan beside the bed.  She rubs the cold sponge against his aging callus desert skin.  

“Damn that’s cold.” – Jose

“The doctor said that cold water…” Mariela

“Damn the doctors.” – Jose

Mariela does well maintaining her composure as she continues to bath Jose, to take care of him, to nurture whatever life is left in him. In her small verbal mentions – she gives him life and then takes it away with another expression of doubt – but never really gives him the truth.  

Mariela tells Jose that she sent the telegram to their daughter.  Thinking – before it is too late.  She has been gone all day on ragged roads, trying to avoid the extreme heat, and making sense of it all before the expected grim reaper arrives with his scythe.  

But Jose now lives his life in a furious mode, furious that his younger wife has left him alone all day.  Who knows what she was up to.  Mariela tells him that his sister Olivia (Denise Blasor) was there to help.

“My sister doesn’t count.  You were gone so long the sun must be setting.  What color is the sky? – Jose

Impassively Mariela says, “A thin line of crimson—a smear of dirty rose.  A winter sky.”

That settles Jose’s mind as he reflects on the desert that he calls “God’s canvas.”  But Mariela has had it with the desert, the heat, the way of life, and the isolation she feels living so far away from humanity. In truth - she dreams of Mexico City.

The truth comes slowly to Jose maybe because Mariela is hesitant to tell him. Mariela says she went to town to send a wire to their daughter, Blanca (Vannessa Vasquez). The time for letting go of a small secret nears and gradually she shares.

“I told her you were dead.” – Mariela

“What?” – Jose

“I told Blanca you were dead.” – Mariela

“Mariela!” Jose

“Yes. Dead.” – Mariela

“A little premature, don’t you think?” – Jose

Jose has fun with his unpredictable wife, Mariela.  His pains are forgotten for a brief moment as he takes delight in her unpredictability.

And despite finding humor in everyday life, Mariela knows that Jose is going to die.  Things are starting to go south and the insulin she injects into his backside seem to be more of annoyance than preventative measure to keep him alive, especially when he eats what he should not be eating. She also knows that Blanca would not have come unless the word was bad, very bad.

That’s not a bad way to get Blanca home in a hurry.

Mariela and Jose had sent their daughter away after the death of their son, Carlos (Kenneth Lopez). Mariela fights with Jose about that; seemingly all of the time, but that is old news. Now they look forward to Blanca coming home and the family reuniting again if not physically, then spiritually. They wait.

“So how do I look?” – Jose

“Pale and flushed.” – Mariela

“That bad? – Jose

“There are thick grooves of gray in your cheeks.   And your eyes are so dark and bright.  To capture you on canvas right now…” – Mariela

Spoken like the true artist that she is, or was, or still wants to be, Mariela retreats to the bathroom to clean the latrine.

“I dreamt of my large house – of an elegant husband – of children of my own.  Now, I live in a dark dress at the edge of the world in a parched house that my brother owns. Forever unmarried. Forever childless.  My hands are empty.  May heart is idle. I have nothing of my own.” – Oliva

Oliva (Denise Blasor) is Jose’s sister.  She is spry but nearing the end of her life and moving slightly toward senility. Oliva has issues with her sister-in-law Mariela. It is not a close relationship. But Mariela has assured Olivia that after Jose dies she will still have a home.

They both know Jose is dying and they want to make him as comfortable as possible, even serving him a little sliver of flan, despite his diabetes.

Oliva brings up the subject of Carlos’s eighteenth birthday had he lived.  Oliva wants to celebrate but Mariela doesn’t want to upset Jose.  Oliva whispers to Mariela that the people in the town tell stories about the fire and they see a little boy running in the desert.

Mariela laments about her son Carlos. And then her mind races back to an earlier time, a time when Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Tina Modotti, and Rufino Tamao visited them in Mexico.  It is at this party Jose has thoughts of moving to the desert, building a commune, and inviting all of their artist friends to visit and work.   

“The desert is God’s Canvas,” – Jose

In the backdrop, Mariela hears her baby Carlos crying while Jose rants about ugly Diego, his ugly paintings, and the coarseness of his brush strokes. Jose fights with Mariela convincing her to pose nude for Diego Rivera.  But, Mariela has her own terms in order for that to become a reality and her terms are something that Jose does not approve.

Back to the present, Jose groans with displeasure as he accuses his sister and wife of conspiring to kill him with the flan. But Mariela says it was only a sliver as Jose moans.

“Was it good?” – Mariela

“It was sweet, Very sweet. Creamy.” – Jose

Jose goes to bed but not before stabbing his sister with a fork.  Not much of an injury but something and Mariela takes care of before sitting outside Jose’s room to wait for his death.

And as the night takes its toll the Blanca, from the painting, speaks of a horrible truth, about that night when she was sent away.  Tonight, she returns like the desert winds with her boyfriend Adam Lovitz (Randy Vasquez) as they both grieve for Blanca’s dead father.

Robert Beltran, the director, does a remarkable job with Mariela in the Desert.  There is a sense of reflective truth in the telling of a story based on lies - from the little white lies to the profound untruths.  Mariela wants to go back to Mexico City.  She lies to enlist her daughter to come home.  Whether she is telling the truth, or a case of senility, Oliva is convinced Carlos is haunting the ranch. She tells anyone who wants to listen. Prodded by her mother, Blanca lies and tells her father that she is married.  And Jose tells the most profound lie that hurts the true artist in the family.

A couple of notes. The space is huge for a play that plays for an extremely intimate gathering. The bed absorbs the room especially when it is not in use.  And, one is very grateful the scene changes were limited to a few changes on stage.

Rachel Gonzalez is wonderful as Mariela Salvatierra who employs a quiet intensity in her craft.  Her craft is simple; it is expressive, and wonderful to watch. But for one moment near the end, keep the intensity in the bottle, you hold, until it breaks.

Vance Valencia is Jose Salvatierra. There is a lot to like about his performance especially the moments when he forgets that he is too ill to express a curiosity about a given moment. This character holds onto something dreadful for a number of years and we really need to see that from him from the first moments in his bed. Valencia has a powerful voice, and moderation would be good for my ears when he bellows his hatred to those who have done him wrong. One can see his anger, and feel his fury, but in the end, how is his resolved?

Denise Blasor is Oliva Salvatierra (Jose’s sister).  There is more to this character than having her as a comic relief, which, by the way, she does well.  Oliva is also a character that falls into the nether land of truth and spiritual imagination to guide her to her destination.  Creating a stronger objective would validate her choices and that could make her soar. Also, in conflict with her present day life, Oliva worries about her welfare, doesn’t know what will happen to her, and needs to find friends real fast to straighten out that matter. Also, she realizes the desert is not her home and she must find a way out, if it’s telling lies about a boy walking in the desert, so be it.  

Vannessa Vasquez is Blanca Salvatierra. She does well as the daughter, her younger self and her present day self.  The character is lost; coming home to find out her father is dead, but not really. The relationship between her and her father requires a stronger bond. The same holds true with her mother and her aunt. Finding the “thing” the one truth that ties her to each individual would add to an already very nice performance.

Kenneth Lopez also does well as Carlos Salvatierra (the son).  Carlos presents as someone who is on the autism spectrum and Lopez does well with that character. Carlos walks around confused and doesn’t understand what is going on around him. Somehow his relationship to his aunt is non-existent especially in the after life (running in the desert).  There is a fascinating moment in the second act where Carlos discovers an extreme truth about the painting, The Blue Barn that was superb!  Lopez has a strong natural appeal on stage and finding a stronger creative objective would only add to a very pleasant performance.

Randy Vasquez as Adam Lovitz is very appealing on stage and has a remarkable presence. Lovitz, a professor, moves to calm a very artistic emotional family with a strong sensibility.  Vasquez performance rings true as a professor and he has a strong emotional commitment. And it doesn’t hurt that he has strong resemblance to Richard Gere. Whatever helps.

Casa 0101 gets better every time I go. Surprised by the talent the first time I went, the work keeps getting better and better despite my railings.  

Crewmembers – the creative team are as follows:

Deena Tover – Stage Manager
Marco De Leon – Scenic Design
Kevin Vasquez – Lighting Design
Vincent Sanchez – Sound Design
Yee Euh Nam – Projection Design
Able Alvarado – Costume Design
Jules Bronola – Costume Assistant
Alexander Cooper – Props Master
Steve Moyer – Publicist
Jorge Villaneuva – Light Board Operator
Drake Valencia – Asst. Stage Manager
Ed Krieger – Photographer
Edward Padilla – Casting Director
Soap Studio, Inc. – Key Art/Playbill Design

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who loves little white lies. 

Reservations:  323-263-7684

Email:  tickets@casa0101.org  or buy online:  www.casa0101.org

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