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: The Sins of Sor Juana (Goodman Theatre)

No justice for Sor Juana

 

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Goodman Theatre presents
  
The Sins of Sor Juana
  
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by
Henry Godinez
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
Through July 25   |  
Tickets: $20–$71   |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Although she is celebrated in Latin America and Spain as one of the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age, little is really known of the life of 17th-century writer and protofeminist Juana In´s de la Cruz. What is known is that she was a remarkable figure for her time — illegitimate, brilliant, accomplished and, for a time, a favorite of the viceroy’s court in Mexico City.

Production_12 At 19, she unaccountably entered a convent, where she spent the rest of her life. The likeliest speculation as to why supposes that she saw it as her best means of conducting a scholarly life — which it was, until her opinionated writings on the rights of women to education fell afoul of the Church and attracted the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. However, no one actually knows what drew Juana to take vows.

In The Sins of Sor Juana, the disappointing centerpiece of Goodman Theatre’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival, playwright Karen Zacarías speculates it was an unhappy love affair. While Sor Juana’s many passionate love poems suggest she might have had illicit lovers, the play’s emphasis on an entirely fabricated and uninspiring love life turns de la Cruz from an extraordinary intellectual and advocate for women to a sappy Silhouette heroine.

In this production, she isn’t even a very effective romance heroine. Scenes between Malaya Rivera Drew, as Juana, and Dion Mucciacito, as Silvio, the handsome scoundrel she falls in love with, fall flat as soggy tortillas — no chemistry whatsoever. There’s more sizzle between Drew and Tony Plana, who plays Juana’s father confessor, although whether we’re supposed to imagine an other than intellectual and religious relationship in that case is more than I can tell.

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Amy J. Carle gives a spunky performance as the upright Sor Sara, bent on bringing Sor Juana to proper nunlike humility. She’s less successful as Juana’s protector, the vicereine, who also has a crush on the young scholar — a fact we’re told by another character rather than shown by any yearning exhibited by Carle.

Zacarías revised her 15-year-old play for the Goodman’s production, supposedly putting more emphasis on the mature Sor Juana, yet that just creates an uneven balance between anguished convent scenes and the cartoonish, cliche-ridden  comedy of the central melodrama, which features out-and-out slapstick from Joe Minoso as the foppish courtier Don Pedro and an evil Production_08scheme hokey enough for a Dudley Do-Right episode.

In another off-kilter element, Laura Crotte puckishly plays Juana’s mystical Mayan maidservant, Xochitl, as well as the Mother Superior of the convent, a conflation oddly emphasized by the director although not reinforced by the plot. Xochitl, whose presence is sometimes actual and sometimes imaginary, adds an intriguing but distracting element of magical realism that Godinez promotes yet which Zacarías barely touches on.

Distractions also extend from Todd Rosenthal‘s large and otherwise lovely set. The pillared setting segues beautifully from austere convent to viceroy’s palace, but continual scene changes involving furnishings rising from below stage or dropping from the fly space begin to seem if they were designed more to showcase the theater’s capabilities than to enhance the drama.

Sor Juana’s story is worth telling and its gaps worth speculating on, but in this piece she’s far more sinned against than sinning.

  
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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