Spanish language telenovelas are an opiate of the masses. Millions, perhaps billions, of people across the globe tune into these compelling stories of passion and romance, sighing and weeping and laughing at the convoluted lives of the rich and the poor, following each character with their complicated trajectories of love and loss, their hopes and dreams achieved or exploded. Unlike American soap operas, which can continue for decades as long as the advertisers make money, telenovelas usually run to 180-200 episodes and are often broadcast five or six nights a week. And their popularity extends world-wide.
Karen Zacarías’ Destiny of Desire rips the format from the small screen and puts it up on stage in a production that is nothing short of spectacular. Inspired by the innovations of Bertolt Brecht, the show has all the earmarks of the Brechtian style—presentational theatricality; large, hand held cards announcing each scene; broad acting, singing and dancing; and current political commentaries on the action of the play that are a rap-on-the-head reminder that what you are experiencing has a message beyond the puny lives of the fictional characters. And it is wildly entertaining.
The action begins, in medias res, with two women, a peasant and an aristocrat, who are in labor in a hospital in the town of Bellarica. Fabiola Castillo (Ruth Livier), the snobby, demanding wife of Armando Castillo (Cástulo Guerra), gives birth to a small, sickly child who, according to the corrupt Doctor Jorge Ramiro Mendoza (Ricardo Gutierrez), has little chance of survival. Meanwhile, the impoverished woman, Hortencia del Rio (Elisa Bocanegra) with her husband Ernesto (Mauricio Mendoza) in attendance, delivers her robustly healthy baby in a corridor on the floor. As any audience could anticipate, Fabiola wants to switch the babies and the venal doctor, seeing a chance to suck up to the wealthy Castillos, agrees. The nurse, Sister Sonia (Evelina Fernández), initially resists the idea, but is convinced, reluctantly, that the healthy baby, now named Pilar Esperanza, will have a better life with the Castillos, while the small sickly baby, Victoria Maria, is destined to die at any moment. Of course, Victoria, with many operations and great care, doesn’t die, which will have ramifications over the years on each and every character in the play.
And a rich set of characters they are. The arrogant casino owner, Armando Castillo, a flashy clothes horse, dominates everyone around him. His wife Fabiola is a textbook, soap opera manipulator. Sebastián Jose Castillo (Eduardo Enrikez), Armando’s estranged son by his dead first wife, is handsome and ambitious. Doctor Mendoza’s son, Doctor Diego Mendoza (Fidel Gomez), runs a free clinic for the poor and despises his corrupt father.
The grown-up, eighteen year-old girls fit their descriptions at birth. Pilar (Esperanza America), glowing with strength and healthy good looks, is a poet who wants to pursue her love of language all the way to advanced university degrees, which puts her in conflict with her parents who want her married off to any suitable man of her class. And Victoria (Ella Saldana North), still in fragile health, is a lovely, wisp of a girl who wants to become a doctor and serve the poor. Meanwhile, Victoria’s mother, Hortencia, has become a maid in the Castillo household, while her husband Ernesto still scrambles to provide for his family in the fields.
This excellent cast of top-notch performers does it all—acting with passionate intensity and heightened speech, singing with quality voices in ensemble or solo, and dancing with verve. There are many excellent solos, but Eduardo Enrikez is stand-out superb in his passionate ranchera “Fallaste Corazón.” Composer and musical director Rosino Serrano at the piano, plays nearly non-stop and brilliantly throughout. Robert Barry Fleming’s stylish choreography suits the varying abilities of the cast.
The production style is simple, yet elaborate in motion. François-Pierre Couture’s scenic design consists of white translucent curtains that span the stage hung on wires so that the cast can open and close them quickly as needed or take them down for other purposes. All set pieces—chairs, doors, beds, furniture, everything—are on wheels and rapidly moved in and out by the cast in choreographed precision. Lighting by Pablo Santiago, shifts to highlight the action as needed and includes a couple spotlights on wheeled stanchions that are operated and aimed by the cast. Julie Weiss’ fabulous costume design is colorful and wickedly funny. Sound designer John Zalewski makes sure that everyone is heard and the balance is right.
The point of all this is that Destiny of Desire, directed by José Luis Valenzuela with consummate acumen, is a superb entertainment, a rollicking good time that is thought provoking, hilarious in its send-up of telenovelas, and yet touching. Brecht and his theory of audience alienation wouldn’t have approved of that, but being moved is integral to drama. I like it like that!
Destiny of Desire runs through November 13 on South Coast Rep’s Segerstrom Stage in Costa Mesa.