Name a telenovela trope, and chances are it pops up somewhere in Karen Zacarías' Destiny of Desire, her frequently ingenious and well-intended, if ultimately lightweight, homage to the genre: the Big Storm. Amnesia. Girl-on-girl-is-hot. Evil mother. Alpha bitch. Switched babies. Love triangles. Miraculous returns from near-death situations. And twist after twist after twist.
Zacarías funnels all this and much more into her two-hour condensation of an entire telenovela arc (which generally run for about 200 episodes), and it's quite the accomplishment. At its best moments—and there are many—the play feels like a long-form sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, a caterwauling, histrionic train wreck that is too compelling and funny to not watch. At its weaker moments—and there are several—this live staging of the insanely popular, though oft-criticized, Latin American television monster that has been exported across the globe falls victim to the perennial sin of theater: taking itself too seriously.
Yet, if Zacarías hadn't aimed higher than merely riffing on the predictably unpredictable genre, then Destiny of Desire would be just what it could be: a playwright tapping into the far-more-popular and accessible TV mainstream to give the marginalized medium of theater some desperately needed attention (which isn't too unlike American TV networks embracing telenovelas to drive up ratings). But it isn't. The point of the play, one surmises, is that class conflict is one of the reasons why millions tune in to some kind of telenovela on any given night.
To illustrate this, Zacarías introduces theatrical tropes into the proceedings, namely those pioneered by that epitome of theater-class consciousness, Bertolt Brecht. Part of Brecht's aesthetic was to constantly remind the audience that it was watching a play, from scene changes unfolding in front of the audience to frequent interruptions, such as direct addresses. The point was to create a sense of detachment, to prod the audience into an active, objective interaction with the concerns of the play, as opposed to a passive, subjective experience of an entertainment.
Zacarías floods her play with musical interludes and public-service-announcement-like interruptions. A bell rings, the action stops and a character comments on some sort of “real world” reality, whether it has to do with the current action onstage or not. An example is one moment when a character mentions that Mexico is home to more Spanish-speaking people than any country in the world, and the U.S. is second.
While infusing the play with meta-like flourishes certainly makes a piece about actors staging a melodramatic telenovela onstage different, it can also be distracting. The result is an ungainly balance, one that attempts to fuse a popular, if highly reviled in some quarters, TV genre with socially conscious theater. It's Big Ideas knocking boots with Low Commerce, and, as with Greil Marcus' brilliant take on Nobel laureate Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, it's like a man trying to stand up in a drunken boat.
But maybe if director José Luis Valenzuela's staging weren't so damn fun, the audience wouldn't mind being taken out of it from time to time. His production is graceful and amiable; while Zacarías may have intended her riff on melodramatic TV fare to be serious, the cast and this production never take themselves too seriously. There isn't a weak link in the 10-person, all Latino cast, with Ella Saldana North's turn as a child of poor farm workers perhaps the finest work. North's character is a quintessentially mousy ingénue, all wide-eyed and breathless and victimized, but she peppers her portrayal with flair and panache, and in those moments when she's allowed to break free of her conventional role, we see she is a mouse that roars. Esperanza America not only has a killer name, but her portrayal as the spoiled daughter of the ruthless and proud patriarch (a sterling Cástulo Guerra) also slips free of its traditional restraints.
Zacarías' play isn't as capable of doing the same. Though it tries very hard to come across as something thought-provoking and social-order rattling, it rarely accomplishes the task. But she still deserves genuine credit. At a time when the battles over identity politics have pushed issues of race and gender to the forefront and relegated class to the backburner, it's refreshing to see a playwright consider the question of whether the bigger issue is—and has always been—economics, with a system built to benefit and empower those fortunate enough to be higher up on the pecking order. And how so many things—such as race, sexuality, and, yes, theater and telenovelas themselves—become ways for the franchised class to further entrench itself, either through fostering illusory conflicts or by making a shit-ton of money off the vehicles supposedly commenting on them.
Destiny of Desire at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 13. $20-$79.