Karen Zacarias’ zesty show, “Destiny of Desire” (subtitled “An Unapologetic Telenovela in Two Acts”) is deeply rooted in the extravagantly magnified emotions of that serial television drama genre that originated in Latin America but has become a wildly popular form of entertainment in countries stretching from Europe to Asia.
‘DESTINY OF DESIRE’
When: Through April 16
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $20 – $75
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission
The story she spins, now in its Chicago premiere by the Goodman Theatre (in a production first presented by South Coast Repertory of Costa Mesa, Ca., its partner for the project), is set in a prosperous desert town in Mexico, but plays out “in an abandoned theater in Chicago,” where big, movable TV lights are in evidence from time to time. Yet its influences are every bit as global in nature as the current viewership for telenovelas.
You can start with the ancient Greeks, whose tales of royal families, hidden parentage, real or potential incest and more are universal building blocks. Then you can move on to Shakespeare, who took such delight in having mistresses and maids flip identities, often playing with gender reversals as well. Add plenty of melodramatic flourishes, inject a bit of Brechtian distancing and signage and fast forward to the many decades of America’s television soap operas and their eternally twisted plot lines. Add plenty of dancing and singing set to an irresistible Latin beat (and a cast that can move as if moonlighting for “Dancing With the Stars”), a set that also moves as if it were under the control of a choreographer, and enough fabulous costumes to make any haute couture designer want to commit grand theft. Finally, spice the whole thing with some chili pepper heat by way of rapid-fire topical references ranging from the current White House resident to matters of health care and women’s rights.
I haven’t even begun to sketch out the show’s plot which bears echoes of that Willy Russell musical, “Blood Brothers” in its nature versus nurture subtext, even if here the focus is on what turns out to be “kissing female cousins.”
It all begins in a Mexican hospital as two women of radically different social classes give birth to babies at almost the same moment, and also happen to share the services of the rather smarmy Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza (Ricardo Gutierrez, the only Chicago actor in the cast). Pilar Esperanza (Esperanza America) is the healthy baby daughter of an impoverished farm couple, Hortencia (Elisa Bocanegra) and Ernesto del Rio (Mauricio Mendoza). Victoria Maria (Ella Saldana North) is the scrawny baby daughter with serious cardiac problems born to Fabiola (Ruth Livier), the social-climbing material girl who is the second wife of Armando Castillo (Castulo Guerra), a hugely wealthy casino magnate long-estranged from Sebastian (Eduardo Enrikez), his handsome son by a previous marriage.
Under the watchful eyes of a nun, Sister Sonia (Evelina Fernandez), Dr. Mendoza agrees to switch the babies, with Fabiola promising to donate great sums of money to the hospital in return for the healthy Pilar, while also assuring him that the “peasant” couple will surely be able to have more babies if Victoria dies.
As it happens, the girls grow up, even if Victoria remains frail. At the age of 18 they meet and immediately bond, as Victoria takes over her mother Hortencia’s job as a maid in the Castillo household after the woman is sent to jail for reasons I won’t go into here. When it comes time to attend a big fundraiser at Castillo’s casino, the two decide to switch roles, as Pilar, a dreamy poet, has no interest in such things, and Victoria is more than thrilled to put on the young woman’s rose tulle gown.
Meanwhile, a great deal of erotic steam is being generated as Pilar falls for Sebastian, whose parentage she knows nothing about, and as Victoria is romanced by nerdy Diego (Fidel Gomez), Dr. Mendoza’s estranged son, who also is a physician. As for Fabiola… well, I will not give away anything here. Suffice it to say, a whole lot of red rose petals rain down on one particular bed.
Director Jose Luis Valenzuela has gathered a cast of uniformly impressive pizzazz who can sing and dance up a storm every bit as well as they can carry off this very particular brand of tragicomedy with zany panache.
Zacarias, a prolific writer who has added many fine plays to the Latinx catalogue, writes with wit, humor and immense energy. And while “Destiny of Desire,” which clocks in at well over two hours, would benefit from some significant cutting, a little binge-watching never hurt anyone.