"Sabina Zúñiga Varela’s performance as Sonya is the most strikingly original in the production. This young woman whom Astrov admires but cannot passionately love is unsentimentally endowed with a strength and intelligence grounded in Chekhov’s forgiving wisdom."
ARTS BEAT LA: “Uncle Vanya” reviewed "Varela seems less depressed than previous Sonyas I’ve seen, but instead has an underlying core of joy, which comes out in scenes of happy excitement where she hopes that Astrov will love her.
MOJADA: A Medea in Los Angeles @ Portland Center Stage
California Shakespeare Theater's
You Never Can Tell
August 17th, 2016
Cal Shakes toys with classic George Bernard Shaw comedy—Karen D'Souza, The Mercury News
August 17, 2016
You Never Can Tell an entertaining revival—Charles Brousse, Pacific Sun
August 16, 2016
Review: You Never Can Tell—Adam Brinklow, Edge Media Network
August 14, 2016 Best Is Worth the Wait in Shaw Gone Wild at Cal Shakes—Lily Janiak, SF Chronicle
August 9, 2016
1896 Feminism Piercingly Relevant at Cal Shakes—Lily Janiak, SF Chronicle
"In all of this, Varela is so compelling, so strong, so vulnerable, she practically makes it The Tragedy of Jocasta. She certainly helps make it one of the boldest shows Moriarty has ever directed." Art & Seek Review
Bruja: Tragedy. By Luis Alfaro. Directed by Loretta Greco. Through June 24. Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, S.F. 80 minutes. $22-$62. (415) 441-8822. www.magictheatre.org.
Forget Zeus and the Greek sun god Helios. The latest potent tragedy by the remarkable Luis Alfaro may be based on "Medea," but it's the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl who creates an indelible last image in the Magic Theatre world premiere of "Bruja."
As in "Electricidad" and his dynamic "Oedipus el Rey," Alfaro is wrestling a classic Greek tragedy into a modern Chicano context. But where the gang-warfare world of his "Oedipus," which premiered at the Magic two years ago, was rendered in stark, troubled machismo, the play that opened Wednesday rides deep currents of indigenous magic to conjure the wrath of a woman wronged.
The plight of Euripides' Medea as an exile in a foreign land seems more immediate for an illegal immigrant in the Mission District. Alfaro intertwines that peril with the powerlessness of ordinary women in traditional societies (unlike his Medea's royal namesake) to enliven and deepen the dramatic impact of her vulnerability. And where the 2,500-year-old magic spells in Euripides can seem pretty remote to us today, the Mesoamerican spirits Alfaro draws upon are alive all around us.
All those elements gather together in the perfect storm of Sabina Zuniga Varela's riveting performance as Medea in director Loretta Greco's masterfully orchestrated stagings. This Medea is a curandera (traditional healer), a practice Zuniga Varela carries out in rituals and consultations with a deeply vested, gentle seriousness that disarms any skepticism. But also with an inherent, focused power that foreshadows the dangerous bruja within.
She's also immediately empathetic as the loving, indulgent mother to two boys, played with lively charm by Daniel Castaneda and Gavilan Gordon-Chavez (alternating with Daniel Vigil and Mason Kreis). And she's the irresistibly sexy, lovely young wife of Sean San José's driven, ambitious, lusty and not entirely trustworthy contract laborer Jason.
Zuniga Varela doesn't have to project all those facets of Medea's complex personality alone. Every aspect is bolstered by the appreciation, wry commentary and constant play of emotions registered by Wilma Bonet as her devoted old nurse, in a performance that almost single-handedly embodies the tragic climax. Carlos Aguirre's rough-smooth Creon stokes the flames as Jason's self-made petty dictator boss - as solid and crude as the plywood walls of Andrew Boyce's set - whose plans for Jason's future threaten Medea's family.
That threat becomes palpable in a trenchant dinner scene, in the midst of paeans to family and how Jason met Medea. Alfaro's "Bruja" is as rich in the concentrated poetry of its discourse as his understated foreshadowings of plot turns and symbolism. When Jason compares his wife to a guaco, or laughing falcon, it's worth noting that this bird is known for feeding on snakes.
Anyone who knows "Medea" will have a good idea of the terrible events to come. But "Bruja" - written in English with sprinklings of Spanish and Nahuatl - is very much Alfaro's own creation. It's in the fertile blend of a harrowing ancient tragedy, no less enduring traditions from another side of the globe and today's pressing concerns that Alfaro strikes dramatic gold.
Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Because I had read that Tanya Saracho’s “El Nogalar” was an adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard,” transplanted from Russia to present-day Mexico with a crop better suited to the climate (“El Nogalar” = “The Pecan Orchard”), I spent about half of my evening at the Fountain Theatre pouncing on Chekhovian clues in the Spanish/English/Spanglish text. Hey, that guy just called that girl “Dunia,” and she’s spraying Febreeze, so I bet she’s based on the maid, Dunyasha. His name is “Lopez.” Lopakhin? Aha!
But “The Cherry Orchard” (1904) is already kind of complicated. It has a large cast of characters, obliquely introduced, with torrents of hopes, delusions and griefs that are difficult to keep straight even when a local drug cartel hasn’t been thrown into the mix. So at last I stopped trying to follow the updated plot(s) and just enjoyed the sultry Mexican evenings — beautifully evoked by Frederica Nascimento’s simple set and Peter Bayne’s twangy guitar music — and the vivid performances.
Saracho has weeded out all the men but Lopez (Justin Huen); clearly the women are the soul of her attraction to Chekhov's last play. We meet feisty Dunia (charming Sabina Zuniga Varela) and weepy, old-maidish Valeria (sweet, endearing Isabelle Ortega) preparing the house for the return of Valeria’s mother, Maite (Yetta Gottesman), and half-sister Anita (Diana Romo), who have been living profligately in the United States while their estate has gone into debt.
Valeria and Anita commiserate about their difficult mother before she appears, but the shock of Maite’s entrance is that she looks their age or younger. This statuesque knockout, as fresh-faced as the young Elizabeth Taylor, is supposed to be the faded Madame Ranevskaya? As soon as Gottesman speaks, though, you understand why she was cast; her Maite is charismatic, joyful, insane, a force of nature. Saracho’s boldest update is making the dynamic between Maite and Lopez overtly sexual. After their sadistic, heartbreaking love scene, hauntingly lit by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, I will never be able to look at Ranevskaya or Lopakhin again without blushing. This is Chekhov picante.
-- Margaret Gray
“El Nogalar,” Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 11. (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Photo: Yetta Gottesman and Justin Huen in "El Nogalar." Credit: Ed Krieger.
by Tanya Saracho
directed by Laurie Woolery
through March 11
Tanya Saracho's El Nogalar means The Pecan Orchard in English, so its similarity to Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard rings a bell even before one sees the play. There are differences between the two, of course. Saracho has taken out most of Chekhov's male characters and leaves but one: Lopez (Justin Huen) - Lopakhin in Cherry Orchard - the grandson of servants who has risen to sudden power and wealth through Mexico's drug cartel. It's not the Russian aristocratic middle class who have lost out to the rising lower class as in Chekhov, where the bank forecloses on the Ranevsky estate, but the Mexican drug dynasty that has contaminated all Mexican citizens, allowing the poor to usurp control and money - Saracho calls it new money, Facebook money. Now in a splendidly directed and acted production at the Fountain Theatre, this West Coast premiere sizzles with earthy passion and sensuality.
This wonderful Nogalar, with Spanish and Spanglish phrases sprinkled throughout - that definitely do not impede listeners' comprehension - has a rich poetic hue, as with, to quote but one of many metaphors, 'the locusts raping the trees' of the orchard to describe the cartel taking control. It is beautifully written and executed by an outstanding director and cast. A truly great evening of theatre!
Playwright Tanya Saracho’s rapid rise through the theatrical ranks parallels character Dunia’s rise through the social strata in El Nogalar, a modern, Mexican adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. One difference is that the playwright’s rise is not so devised.
Boston-cultivated and Chicago-culled Mexican playwright Saracho resists being called Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicana and other terms deemed to be limiting. She is foremost a writer. Yet her choice of playwrights to admire might be surprising to some.
When Saracho first got a hold of Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, in college along with the rest of his Caucasoid canon, Saracho declared Chekhov to be the most Latino playwright she had encountered. “The women, the way they lamented, the way they whined...it seemed very Latino to me.”
When Chekhov first wrote The Cherry Orchard at the turn of the 20th century in Yalta about an aristocratic Russian family facing imminent loss of wealth, he likely didn’t foresee that his characters would resonate so wholly with 21st century border-town Mexicans experiencing ever-encroaching cartel violence.
There are many comparisons between 20th century Russia and 21st century México, including economic inequality, class conflict and endlessly wondering who to trust. You are forced to place your trust in both landlords and maids, yet either or both could have the power to unearth you. And either or both are themselves subject to an even greater power, which in 1900 Russia was the State and in modern México is the mafia.
Written as a comedy, The Cherry Orchard was first directed as a tragedy, and so for the 100 years since has walked the line between the two. This border between comedy and tragedy is just one of the many borders at issue here. There are lines between mothers and daughters, men and women, families and neighbors, bosses and workers – lines that are almost all, at some point, crossed.
In both the Chekhov version and Saracho’s version, the one line that stays fixed is that of guardianship over the land. Those who till the soil become owners of the soil. The workers are the last trees standing.
El Nogalar is Spanish for “the pecan orchard.” Why pecan? Perhaps because while cherries blossomed in Eastern Europe, pecans flourished in México. The first pecan orchards were planted in México in the 1700’s, and pecans were for a time more valuable than cotton. And also, perhaps, because cartels and social inequities and human nature are all tough nuts to crack and such cracking requires outside perspective and force.
While the casting in this West Coast premiere of El Nogalar is a tiny bit curious – Yetta Gotttesman who plays the mother seems too darned young – the acting is terrific, with the stand-out performance on opening night being that of Sabina Zuniga Varela as Dunia.
Varela captured the kind of depth and range that a maid who plays the social ladder like an accordion must have in order to win everyone’s trust. The other performances by Justin Huen as Lopez, Isabelle Ortega as Valeria, Diana Romo as Anita and Yetta Gottesman as Maité, despite her youthfulness, were also excellent.
The set, which is minimalist in a modernist way, is perfect in that it doesn’t overpower the action. It is understated, which supports Russian notions of frugality, yet colorful, to represent Mexican flavor. And the most striking colors, interestingly, are red and blue, perhaps to signify the Mexican-American gangs who have ties with the cartels who have people, not just in México, but also in Los Angeles, on edge.
In a final analysis, one reason to study such classic plays as The Cherry Orchard is to recognize that the times really haven’t changed much because people really haven’t changed much. Power, domination, loyalty, longing, displacement and revenge all still rule our collective destiny. While an orchard of trees is cultivated by humans, humans are cultivated by their nature.