A sudsy telenovela of destiny and desire

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Michael Toscano

Destiny of Desire is a steamy send-up of Spanish television soap operas (or telenovelas), now playing at Arena Stage. Nicholas Rodriguez (playing Sebastian Jose Castillo) and Esperanza America (playing Pilar Castillo) are among the stars in this wild, switched-at-birth tale of deceit and seduction.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

It was a dark and stormy…no, wait. It was a stormy and rainy or a stormy and windy night. That’s where the story line of Destiny of Desire — the faux-telenovela comedy currently running at Arena Stage — begins, and where it transitions at overheated turning points in the story.

This is a world premiere production from D.C. playwright Karen Zacarias, part of the area theater community’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Concentrate on the “Festival” part of that, because that’s what Zacarias provides here — a fiesta of deeply played comic characters and plot. She sends up not only the Spanish-language, serialized TV melodramas that are overwhelmingly popular with Latino audiences, but also the messages related to gender roles and expectations based on sex. (That’s “sex” meaning both gender and, well, you know, sex.) 

Many of those messages extend far beyond the confines of the telenovela, of course, and into real life everywhere in the world. So we can both laugh and learn, or, one hopes, be reminded.

Zacarias has written award-winning plays, including The Book Club Play and Mariela in the Desert, as well as one of my favorites: her adaptation of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.

Over-the-top fun

Here she delves fully into broad comedy based on richly and deliberately stereotypical characters. With help from director José Luis Valenzuela, Artistic Director of the Latino Theater Company of Los Angeles, and a superb all-Latino ensemble, those characters are plumped up with multi-layered nuance in their over-the-top performances.

That adds to the zing of plot twists and surprising reveals of character traits. Add salsa-infused songs (original music from Rosino Serrano, who is also music coordinator here) and eye-catching, lusty dance (choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming) and you have a zesty, fun show.

The telenovela aspect of the play is a side feature giving the playwright form on which to hang her story. The conventions are there: the dramatic flourishes of plot development accompanied by dramatic, dark chords and meaningful, lingering looks; the periodic denouement of a plot point (even if fleeting), regularly timed as if to coincide with a commercial break; the breathless excitement of building sexual attraction, and the outlandish story lines built on deceit, impossible coincidence, and overlapping secrets. Blend in a bit of magic realism, and this soap opera becomes a Niagara Falls of sexy suds.

As the production begins, we, the audience, may be in a Spanish-language TV studio, watching a taping of the latest telenovela. We see actors breezing in, dealing with costume and casting issues, all silently.

Just when I thought I was beginning to see what this play was about, the novella itself began, and everything changed from the plebian aspects of TV production to something quite different. Throughout the show, actors not involved in the action remain on stage, as if waiting in the wings, singing background in the musical numbers, or operating a spotlight.

Occasionally, one will grab a microphone to declaim some fact or tidbit of information. These actually seem tacked on, perhaps to make this play seem more like something we are to learn from in a “Women’s Voices” event.

Example: “Over 200,000 women in the U.S. are in prison; two-thirds are mothers.” That’s both interesting and startling, but the play takes place in a poor town in Mexico, not the United States, and we all pretty much know the mother in jail in the story will probably get out. After all, we believe her to be pure of heart.

More trenchant is this bit of dialogue that comes shortly before that information-bulletin: Poor mother to daughter: “Why do you defy me?” Daughter: “Because you are my mother.” And that is organically linked to the characters and the story, and is both meaningful and funny.

Some of the other information bulletins may or may not be true, which would be unfortunate if so, because we may not believe the odder-sounding ones awkwardly inserted into this comic setting.

Switched at birth

Some folks have to know about plot before they decide to see a show, so here is a glimpse. A scheming, selfish trophy wife of a powerful man shows up at a hospital in a Mexican province. She’s notable primarily for the casino the woman’s husband owns. She’s about to give birth. Simultaneously, a poor-but-noble couple shows up, with a birth also imminent.

Due to the rich woman’s scheming and the help of a dishonest doctor, the babies are purposely switched and are raised in the wrong households.

Years later, the chicks come home to roost, as it were. Backstabbing, deceit, lust, and lies-within-lies and secrets-within-secrets are ultimately revealed in a swirl of color, music and laughs. There’s even a Cinderella-at-the-ball moment. The title could just as easily be “Desire of Destiny,” it seems.

Entertaining cast

It’s great fun, as director Valenzuela keeps the pace zipping along. You’ll love the cast and their work. 

Local heartthrob and Arena stalwart Nicholas Rodriguez (Mother Courage and Her Children, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!) lends his pecs and his rich voice to induce a proper level of swooning. Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (who was in the Round House Theatre production of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent) is appropriately evil but insecure as the trophy wife.

But Esperanza America and Elia Saldańa, both from Los Angeles, own the show as the two switched babies who grow up with fates eternally intertwined. They offer a look at the nature vs. nurture debate over how we develop as people. Each sings beautifully and inhabits their role fully, blending sexual charisma with innocent charm.

But then everyone in the 10-member cast makes a vivid impression. You will be entertained just about every moment.

While channel surfing, I have stopped for a gander at a telenovela several times over the years. Even though I could understand only some of the Spanish dialogue, I was always entranced by the conventions of the genre: the looks, pauses, music, the seemingly pure characters versus the purely evil, etc. It’s all brought to life here, only more so. Enjoy.

Destiny of Desire runs through Oct. 18 in the Kreeger Theater of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, located at 1101 6th St. SW, in Washington, D.C.

Show times are Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Noon matinees are scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 6 and Wednesday, Oct. 14. 

Open-captioned performances are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m.

There will be post-show discussions featuring artists and staff after these performances: noon and 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 6; noon, Wednesday, Oct. 14; and 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8.

Ticket prices range from $40 to $90 and may be purchased online at www.arenastage.org, by telephone at (202) 488-3300, or at the theater’s sales office, Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

While there are no senior discounts, a limited number of half-price tickets are sold prior to most performances of Arena Stage productions, subject to availability. These HOTTIX go on sale 30 minutes before curtain. HOTTIX must be purchased in person at the sales office. Limit of two per person.

Assistive-listening technology, accessible seating and entrances, and limited handicapped parking (by reservation) are available. Arena Stage offers free valet service to patrons with accessibility needs who call in advance.

For more information, visit www.arenastage.org or call (202) 488-3300.