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A CurtainUp DC Review
Destiny of Desire
"The fate of a woman is always in the hands of a man." — Fabiola Castillo, wife of Armando Castillo
Nicholas Rodriguez as Sebastian Jose Castillo and Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo
Over the top. Silly beyond words. Farce. Melodrama. Satire. Fun. Those are just a few words to describe playwright Karen Zacarias' Destiny of Desire now premiering at Arena Stage as part of the Women's Voices Theater Festival. Before the first act begins, actors mill around onstage greeting one another, doing physical and vocal warm up exercises, changing their clothes, waving to the audience. The onstage pianist tries a few chords and the most senior actor taps his watch as if to say "it's time, amigos."

What is going on here? We are backstage at the taping of a telenovela which is a Latino "art form" similar to a Norte Americano soap opera in a limited-edition series. Some identities are false and infidelity is rampant as this telenovela unfolds like an operatic drama. Not all is as it seems. The same characters re-appear in different episodes each of which ends with a moral, a statistic (unsourced) and a serious thought.

The characters are somewhat stock: the father who disowned his son by wife numero uno, now wants the daughter he has with wife numero dos to be the belle of the ball, to bring some much needed "class" to the family. The girl's mother, however, insistently wants her to marry well (i.e. a doctor who is rich.) The poor farmer and his wife lovingly give their all to bring up an idealistic and frail young girl. A greedy doctor unwittingly gives the gift of life to a dying soul; a wicked stepmother with a voracious sexual appetite and a nun who interjects from time to time the doom-filled phrase "it was a stormy night."

The repetition of familiar phrases and gestures add greatly to the hilarity of the evening. But unlike slaptstick, which this is not, the farce never goes too far. Credit should go not just to the playwright but to the director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, who holds his ensemble in check. He's dealing with corny material but sends it up to just enough so that the laughs keep coming.

It's always hard to know who should take the credit for assembling a perfectly cast ensemble. But surely it was a team effort headed by Valenzuela who is based in LA, as are casting directors Pauline O'Con and Rosalinda Morales, and many of the authentically Latino actors, all of whom embrace the humor with straight faces.

Nicholas Rodriguez whose gorgeous voice has been heard at Arena before, most notably when he played Curly in Oklahoma, gives a very strong performance as the prodigal son. Not until the second act does he get a solo but it is well worth the wait. Rayanne Gonzales, as the farmer's wife, also brings true empathy to her solo. On-target in every scene and always dressed to the nines by costume designer Julie Weiss, is Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Fabiola, the social-climbing, money-grubbing, femme fatale wife of Armando Castillo (Castulo Guerra), whose casino is referred to as the Monaco of Mexico. Oscar Ceville as Dr. Mendoza and particularly as the casino's dealer is a master of perfect timing. Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo and Elia Saldana at Victoria del Rio, bring a genuine sweetness to their parts.

While some of the actors dance like actors rather than dancers, choreographer Robert Barry Fleming gives them slo-mo or exaggerated motions with which to move doors, beds, tables on and off designer Francois-Pierre Couture's suitably slightly tacky set. Fleming even gives them some chances to let loose, but not too loose, with such Latin steps as a cha cha.

Spot lights are on the side of the stage of the taping and there are even a couple of very clever "rewinds." But the original music is live and lively thanks to composer/pianist Rosino Serrano.

Gracias, Arena y Karen Zacarias y Jose Luis Valenzuela, por las bromas chistosas which means thanks for the funny jokes.

Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarias
Directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela
Original Music by Rosino Serrano
Choreography by Robert Barry Fleming
Set Designed by Francois-Pierre Couture
Costumes Designed by Julie Weiss
Lighting Designed by Pablo Santiago
Sound Designed by John Zalewski
Cast: Marian Licha (Sister Sonia); Carlos Gomez (Ernesto del Rio/Dance Captain); Rayanne Gonzales (Hortensia del Rio); Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Fabiola Castillo); Oscar Ceville (Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza/Casino Dealer/Cop);Elia Saldana (Victoria del Rio/Nurse 1); Esperanza America (Pilar Castillo/Nurse 2); Castulo Guerra (Armando Castillo); Nicholas Rodriguez (Sebastian Jose Castillo/Paramedic/Cop ); Fidel Gomez (Dr. Diego Mendoza/Paramedic/Cop); Rosino Serrano (Augustin Lara Jr.)
Run Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC;; 202-488-3300.
September 11 to October 18, 2015. Tickets: $40 to $90.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson, September 25, 2015 performance.
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