Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through April 16
By ANNE SPISELMAN
According to one of the factoids delivered directly to the audience during the course of “Destiny of Desire,” the “telenovela is the number one form of entertainment in the world today. Some say that over 2 billion people, one third of the human race, watch these stories every night.”
I admit I’m not one of them, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Karen Zacarías’ play, which is subtitled “An Unapologetic Telenovela in Two Acts.” It had its world premiere at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, in 2015, and the Chicago premiere at Goodman Theatre is a co-production with South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA.
In a word, the show is a delight. Zacarías simultaneously embraces the genre, compressing a serialized six-month-or so drama into two-and-a-half hours, and spoofs it lovingly. Similar in some ways to American soap operas, except that they’re televised at night and have defined limited-time story arcs, telenovelas are packed with all the sex, lies and melodrama one could want, usually include doctors and nuns, and incorporate everything from music and dancing to social commentary about timely subjects like women’s rights and health care.
Zacarías goes a step further, and her vision is made vivid reality by director José Luis Valenzuela and an ensemble of ten actors plus music director-composer-pianist Rosino Serrano. “Destiny of Desire” is framed as a play-within-a-play and begins with the actors in an abandoned Chicago theater (you can tell by the distressed back wall of François Pierre Couture’s set) preparing to tape, an activity signaled by big lights they operate on either side of the stage. This allows the factoids to function as sort of a Brechtian distancing device. They range from serious (“22 people die each day waiting for a transplant. One donor could save eight lives.”) to amusing ( “56% of girls have kissed another girl…and liked it.”) and provide a sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious counterpoint to the action. There also are some jabs at the current administration.
The telenovela itself draws on Greek tragedies about the fall of royal houses, Shakespearean comedies about switched identities, stock characters like those in commedia dell’arte, and a whole lot more. Set in the prosperous fictional town of Bellarica, Mexico, it has a plot with more twists and turns than a corkscrew.
The story begins on a rain-stormy night—though the town is in the desert—at the hospital, where a poor but loving farm couple from the edge of town, Hortencia (Elisa Bocanegra) and Ernesto del Rio (Mauricio Mendoza), and Fabiola Castillo (Ruth Livier), the former beauty-queen second wife of Armando Castillo (Cástulo Guerra), the town’s rich casino owner, are about to have baby girls at the same time. Hortencia’s daughter is born healthy while Fabiola’s is about to die of a weak heart, so Fabiola convinces Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza (Ricardo Gutierrez) to switch the babies and give her the robust one, promising generous donations to the hospital in exchange. A nun-nurse, Sister Sonia (Evelina Fernández), is the disapproving witness but doesn’t stop the exchange.
Fast forward eighteen years. Hortencia, who has been a maid in the Castillo household all this time, has
actually raised Pilar Esperanza (Esperanza America), not knowing that the beautiful young girl, who
wants to be a poet, is her own daughter and not Fabiola’s. She and Ernesto also have nurtured Victoria Maria (Ella Saldana North), whose heart remains weak though her will is strong enough that she wants to go to university and become a doctor.
When Hortencia is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, Victoria Maria goes to the Castillo’s to take her mother’s place as the maid. She and Pilar meet and bond instantly. Then Pilar, who dislikes her parents’ social climbing, suggests that Victoria—whose life she’s wished for—change places with her for an important ball (at which she’s supposed to be crowned), and Victoria can’t resist the beautiful rose gown (costumes by Julie Weiss). In their disguises, the girls also meet up with their true loves at the ball: Pilar with Sebastián (Eduardo Enrikez), Castillo’s estranged son by his first wife, and Victoria with Dr. Diego Mendoza (Fidel Gomez), Dr. Mendoza’s estranged son.
Everything goes wrong when Castillo discovers the girls practicing their kissing and casts Victoria out into another storm. The family ties also run deeper than he knows, with Fabiola’s philandering and perfidy knowing few bounds, and Ernesto keeping a secret that’s her potential undoing. In the end, good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everyone turns out to be related to everyone else.
In between scenes, the actors and furniture seem to float around the stage, thanks partly to choreography by Robert Barry Fleming. He’s also responsible for the lively dances, while the soulful songs, which are sung in Spanish, add some of the flavor of the original, mostly Spanish telenovelas without the necessity of subtitles.
All in all, “Destiny of Desire” is designed to make us appreciate a mainstream art form many of us know little about, and at the same time, it helps explain why it’s so addictive for those who do. That’s because a strange thing happens along the way: We start caring about these characters despite the silliness of the stories.