Review: El Nogalar (Teatro Vista at Goodman Theatre)

  
  

A fresh, visceral update of Chekhov classic

  
  

Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

  
Teatro Vista i/a/w Goodman Theatre presents
  
El Nogalar
  
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Cecilie D. Kennan
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

‘”They’ve taken our Mexico. They’ve taken our days, our nights.”   –Valeria

Breakout Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho has taken Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and planted it in contemporary Northern Mexico. Change the cherries to pecans, keep the once-wealthy family and the rigid class divisions, hang on to willful blindness to a way of life changing and you have the Silver Age of Russia all over again. One notable exception: Madame Ranevsky and her household never had to contend with the violence spawned by drug cartels vying for control of their territory. Bracingly directed by Cecilie D. Keenan, Saracho’s adept variation takes Chekhov’s premise from the frying pan and throws it directly into the fire. The result is an exciting new work that speaks with immediacy and passion to our times.

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Yunuen Pardo - El NogalarDunia (Yunuen Pardo) and Guillermo Lòpez (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia) maintain the house and land belonging to the once-prosperous Galvan family. Only the older daughter of the clan, distraught, anxious and overworked Valeria (Sandra Delgado), has stayed on to manage the property. Her mother Maité (Charin Alvarez) and sister Anita (Christina Nieves) have long lived up north in America, Anita attending various schools and Maité absorbed in an abusive affair with an American intellectual—a man who says “Mexican” like it’s a dirty thing. “You know he means other kinds of Mexicans,” says Valeria to her returning sister, hanging on to those little shreds of the past and class distinction that once defined her family. The past hangs on like a ghost they can’t shake and, in the past, their home played host to governors and senators. An upstairs bedroom contains a bed rumored to have held a former president of Mexico. Now, Valeria fights Dunia to keep the lights off during the day to save electricity and she desperately relies on Guillermo for physical protection and financial solutions.

Maité and Anita return to the shell of their family’s former ease and grandeur—a condition symbolically reinforced by the oversized, intricately detailed dollhouse that centers Brian Bembridge’s set design. Their friends, the old rich and influential families of Mexico, have fled. Only those too poor to leave, like Dunia and Guillermo, have stayed to endure the ravishment of their lives and futures by ongoing drug wars. Drug lords have grabbed surrounding lands and now set their claws on the Galvan’s land, which sports a once-glorious pecan orchard that Guillermo Lòpez worked in barefoot as a child.

     
Charín Alvarez and Christina Nieves - El Nogalar Sandra Delgado and Yunuen Pardo - El Nogalar
Charín Alvarez, Christina Nieves and Sandra Delgado Christina Nieves - El Nogalar

Pardo and Garcia do a brilliant job setting up the brutal and dangerous reality that informs their every action and choice. “Who would believe the news?” says Dunia about the kidnappings and slayings that are a constant occurrence, “It seems like a movie.” Lòpez tells her she talks too much and will no doubt end up dead in a ditch for it, but he himself seems ambivalent about his own tough pose. “Words are for idle people, people who don’t have to work for a living,” he mutters as he strokes a book that he longs to have the security and leisure to read and absorb, like his wealthy employer before him.

Yet, nothing heightens the dangers facing the Galvan family like mother Maité’s entrance. Here is a woman on the edge, who still dresses and acts like a jet-setter from a lost era of affluence. Alvarez subtly captures Maité’s mania and pushes it over that edge at precise moments, but never overplays it. Here is a woman with her head in the sand, with a manic faith in the belief that just acting the part of a jaded millionaire will pay her way and protect her from the losses to come. “Look at this place. It’s breaking my heart in two,” she says of the house and her dried out, untended pecan trees, yet we know she will never take responsibility for its neglect. Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves in El NogalarStill absorbed in a vision of herself from 20 years ago, she jogs the hills in tight mini-shorts heedless of the risk she’s putting herself in.

Young Anita also returns sorely unprepared for the world she’s come home to. An adolescence spent shifting from boarding school to boarding school has left her as ungrounded and as unconnected to her culture as can be. “I’m a half person,” she complains to Valeria, having only a little grasp of Spanish and a debutante’s understanding of the world. Of the three Galvan women, only Valeria seems to have developed the capacity to survive the loss of the orchard. Delgado deftly runs the gamut of overtaxed emotions that are Valeria’s lot, whether trying to contain her mother’s excesses or get her to accept the reality of their situation. Her crowning moment comes once the place is no longer theirs and she throws the keys that she’s worn as a chatelaine at her mother’s feet.

Saracho’s reworking of Chekhov is vivid in its dialogue and visceral in the chances that it takes. Teatro Vista’s cast renders earthier performances than one will find in a delicately balanced Cherry Orchard, but nothing that isn’t absolutely appropriate to time and place. Not only does the production never veer into overwrought territory, it instead awakens us to a version of ourselves under similar conditions. What could be a more enlightening evening in the theater than that?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Carlo Lorenzo Garcia and Bert Matias - El Nogalar.

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REVIEW: Our Lady of the Underpass (16th Street Theater, with Teatro Vista)

A compelling story, no matter what you see

 

OurLadyprodphotosmall

 
16th Street Theater (with Teatro Vista) presents
 
Our Lady of the Underpass
 
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Sandra Marquez

at 16th Street Theater, 6420 W. 16th Street, Berwyn
(map)
through May 1 (more info)

By Catey Sullivan

Roughly mid-way through Our Lady of the Underpass, a disgruntled jogger played by Chris Cantelmi goes off on the “retards”  fucking up  his Fullerton Avenue running route as they gather to pray at the titular image.

“These Catholics,” he snarls, adjusting his scrotum through his expensive running gear, “They’re like, ‘Look at my grilled cheese! It’s Jesus! Call a press conference!”

If there’s a more authentic archetype of urban assholery on stage this month, we’d be surprised. With a wad of chewing gum and the ugly air of entitlement peculiar to 20something boys with a full head of hair and a Gold’s Gym physique, Cantalemi captures in full the egoism and the cluelessness of  fellow that’s all too recognizable.

Juan Gabriel Ruiz (photo credit: Art Carillo) He’s but one in the vivid, vibrant parade of characters that people Tanya Saracho’s docudrama centering on the image Obdulia Delgado discovered on the Fullerton Avenue underpass five years ago this month. Directed by Sandra Marquez (who helmed the same cast in last year’s world-premiere of Our Ladyat Victory Gardens), this joint Teatro Vista16th Street production offers an alternately tragic, comic, and provocative examination of faith and skepticism in Chicago.

Saracho spent months, tape-recorder in hand, at the underpass many claimed was a sacred spot after an image of the Virgin Mary (or was it a salt stain?) appeared. As the candles, flowers and petitions accrued, she interviewed the pilgrims who flocked to visit the manifestation of the Virgin Mary -  as well as those who insisted it was a bad patch job.  Our Lady captures the depth and breadth of both the spiritual and the cynical in six, captivating monologues. The disparate (and often desperate) stories are so wholly compelling, it becomes easy to overlook Saracho’s formidable powers as a reporter. At the underpass, complete strangers unburdened  their darkest secrets to her – hopes, hurts and emotions that, in many cases, they had never uttered aloud. If the playwriting thing doesn’t work out for Saracho, she’s surely got a career as an investigative journalist.

In contrast to Cantelmi’s masterstroke as the quintessential tool, Our Lady presents Suzette Mayobre as a Huppie (an upwardly mobile Latina) inexplicably shuddering through a complete breakdown in pink monkey pajamas and Uggs. Her story of a fairy tale relationship (“It was like we were trapped in an ad for a cruise”) that suddenly, literally turns to shit is as hilarious as it is upsetting. If doesn’t matter if you can’t directly relate to the plight of a woman whose perfect boyfriend takes an unforeseen  scatological swerve. Anyone who has ever  been forced to deal with the unthinkable  – and gone a little crazy trying to do so – will recognize themselves in this  moving, tragically funny portrait.

Equally compelling is Gabriel Juan Ruiz as Tony, Elgin resident, aspiring deacon and self-appointed guardian of the Underpass.  Ruiz creates a marvelous trajectory from soft-spoken reason to feral, screaming misogyny  in the space of a single monologue. Women are god’s creatures, Tony rhapsodizes with the gentle, doe-eyed wonder of a lamb -  until (and here, Ruiz captures the distilled essence of bug-eyed mania) they turn into the “beast of the Revelation.”  With Tony’s parting words, Ruiz’ unleashes a neediness that’s downright scary: “I’ve been on television four times!” He yells, and in that frenzied distress, one gets the sense of a desperation that’s almost sociopathic.

underpass1 On the other end of the spectrum is Charin Alvarez, as La Tia, the aunt of a severely disabled boy who is the love of her life. Her story unfolds in the self-effacing tones of a woman who has always put herself a far distant second behind anyone else she might encounter, from immediate family to factory co-workers. Recalling a  transnational Monterrey-to-Chicago love story, the family reunion that upended her life and her abiding devotion to a child not apt to live past one more birthday, Alvarez speaks with a melodious, near-hypnotic tone that is both her artistic signature and the voice of a unique character. It’s a sad, lovely and powerful story.

The one piece in Our Lady that does not work quite so well this time around is the nurse’s tale, the narrative of a Polish-American RN whose bitter recollections of growing up the daughter of a cleaning lady have shaped her angry world outlook. Amanda Powell – the sole newcomer to the cast since it’s premiere last year – leans too hard on the trash-talking vitriol, giving the piece an unvarying rage that doesn’t allow for an emotional arc.

That, however, is largely a quibble –  our sense is that the nurse’s mono-rancor will settle into more varying depths as the run continues.

Between the monologues, Saracho places brief choruses of prayer to Our Lady of the Underpass, of The Botanica that Also Sells Phone Cards, of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, of Affordable Duplexes and all the other causes the Virgin takes on as Fullerton Avenue becomes a shrine. The scenes play out on Brian Sidney Bembridge’s startlingly accurate replication of the underpass and the image on it. Mike Tutaj’s projections of flickering candles, graffiti and shimmering auras instill the piece with both a sense of mysticism and the harsh urban reality of disfigured concrete. No matter what you see as you gaze on the Underpass, Saracho’s story of its power is compelling.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

     

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