Telenovelas, those over-the-top Spanish-language cousins of soap operas, are said to be the number one form of entertainment in the world. They are embedded in Latino culture and it’s here where playwright Karen Zacarias found the inspiration for her own version of a telenovela for the stage.

‘Destiny of Desire’
When: To April 16
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $20-$75

As a co-founder of Latino Theatre Commons, a national group of Latino artists seeking to update the American narrative on Latino stories, Zacarias is always searching out new Latino-flavored stories for the stage. She was talking with a group of friends when the conversation turned to how frustrating it is when an intense emotion is shown on stage in a Latino play and critics sometimes use the word telenovela as a descriptive.

“It’s a glib way of dismissing high-caliber work. So I thought I would be unapologetic about telenovelas and try to write the best two-hour telenovela I could,” Zacarias recalls. “To take a look at the genre. Why the telenovela is so popular in our culture and why we disregard it as art. I wondered if it was possible to take it to another level and make it into high art.”

“Destiny of Desire” is the result of this playwriting experiment. Under the direction of Jose Luis Valenzuela, Zacarias’ comedy makes its Chicago debut at the Goodman Theatre. It features a cast from the recent production at Los Angeles’ South Coast Repertory where Valenzuela is artistic director. (In addition to the Goodman production, two other plays by Zacarias — “Native Gardens” at Victory Gardens Theater, and “Into the Beautiful North” at 16th Street Theater — also will be staged this season.)

Set in Mexico, “Destiny of Desire” begins on the stormy night two babies are born — one into a family of great wealth, the other into a poor working-class family — and then jumps ahead 18 years as the now young women are looking to their futures. The wild hijinks in the telenovela mode include switched identities, illicit affairs, dishonest doctors, separated lovers and a hovering cloud of doom.

Zacarias’ unusual play has become a unique experience for all involved — playwright, actors, director and designers.

“Telenovelas are complicated and interesting in the way they build characters, plots and storylines,” Valenzuela says. “It’s an entire art onto itself.” The goal, he adds, was to make it “fresh and intriguing and not simply a parody.”

Utilizing a format that takes more than 100 hours to unfold on television and instead packing it into two hours was no easy task. Zacarias says she knew she had to “go crazy” with it but she adds, “as crazy as you go, it still has to make sense.” There were several attempts before she felt she was finally getting it right. The key turned out to be a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Bertolt Brecht.

“Thinking about their work was a way of getting to the heightened theatricality in the story and plot,” she recalls. “The sprawling epic of one [Shakespeare] and the social commentary of the other [Brecht] helped me dig into the telenovela style.”

“Destiny of Desire” employs devices used by Brecht. The entire cast is on stage at all times, songs interrupt the action, and titles introduce each scene. These titles, various factoids read into microphones by the actors, serve as a break in the action on stage and a way to contextualize and heighten the issue in a given scene.

“Telenovelas are known for getting across ideas that were considered taboo such as safe sex, family planning and divorce,” Zacarias says. “So it’s partly Brecht but also what the world of the telenovela does.”

The songs — rancheras and cumbias sung sometimes in Spanish and other times English — are performed on stage throughout the show by musical arranger Rosino Serrano on the piano. “Music is a big part of the telenovela style from the opening montage to the lovers’ big scenes,” Zacarias says. “So the relationship of the music and the script is integral.”

Zacarias says by making “Destiny of Desire” joyful, funny and celebratory as well as thoughtful,” she hopes audiences “laugh and have a good time.” “But most of all, she hopes they think of this as “an American play.”

“I hope they see this kind of play with these kind of characters as part of the American canon and not as a separate entity,” Zacarias says. “And to see it as part of the fabric of the United States and part of the fabric of what is American theater.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.