Dorothy Fortenberry’s new play, Species Native to California, produced by IAMA Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre, is as current as yesterday, or more to the point, last fall, when politics ruled the collective consciousness. She forges new meanings out of some old tropes. Loosely inspired by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the play also dips into the Shakespearean tradition with the appearance of the ghostly character, La Llorona (Murielle Zuker), a character from the old Mexican legend of a woman who drowned her children in despair after she and they were abandoned by a feckless Spaniard who left them for a woman of his own class, a situation that harks back to Euripides’ Medea as well.
Set in Northern California wine country, a family is in crisis over the state of their estate. The three-thousand-acre property was once bountiful, growing grapes bound for the press, the barrel and the bottle. Lately the farm has deteriorated and gone to ruin. The grapes have withered, borrowed money is owed, and creditors are threatening to take the property. The head of the family, Skip (Tom Amandes), a former philosophy professor with a new-age looseness, depends on future karma to resolve the woes of today. His daughter Zo (the delightfully quirky Melissa Stephens), a home-schooled homebody, is completely her father’s child. Living in a separate house on the property, Gloria (Eileen Galindo) and her eighteen year-old son Victor (Tonatiuh Elizarrara), illegal Zapatista refugees from Mexico, help maintain what is left of the estate.
The drama kicks off with the arrival of older daughter, Mara (Margaux Susi) and her beau, Jeff (Tim Rock). Mara works in a tech company in Palo Alto co-founded by Jeff. They are sweet on each other and are “engaged to be engaged.” She has returned to help sort out the financial mess, hoping that, perhaps, Jeff might be the key player. Bernie (Carlos E. Campos), a local bank manager that Skip has entrusted to help, is in way over his head and knows it. A foreclosure auction looms and every suggestion Bernie makes is greeted with a che sera, sera shrug from Skip.
The play is wonderfully bi-lingual, with plenty of rapid Spanish delivered by Gloria. People with even a smattering of the language will follow it, although the clarity of the action is self-explanatory. It reminds me of El Teatro Campesino’s Christmas shows, La Pastorela and La Virgen del Tepeyac, which are performed todo en español, yet are easily understood by a non-Spanish speaking audience through the expressiveness of the Teatro style.
When Gloria is called upon to tell a story, she recounts the tale of La Llorona, which conjures up the weeping woman’s appearance. Thereafter, the spectral character is never far from the stage. In a thrillingly theatrical scene, Gloria recounts the harrowing story of her flight from Mexico across the Rio Grande. She alternates Spanish and English with La Llorona standing behind her who translates the Spanish into English. And when Gloria shifts into English, the ghostly presence responds with Spanish.
Guided by the skilled hand of director Eli Gonda, the show boasts a strong cast, a tight script, and an absorbing performance. The production, with set design by David Mauer and lighting by Josh Epstein, is configured in the unusual tennis-court style, which places the audience on opposite sides of the playing area. This allows for great flexibility of entrances and exits with a variety of distinct acting areas. Costumes by Melissa Trn reinforce and support time, place, action and character. Sound design by David B. Marling is excellent. The country soundscape that greets the audience when the doors open is pleasing with the subtle sound of bees especially delightful.
Species Native to California continues through June 11 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.