Two well-to-do couples find themselves living side by side, their cultures clash. The Hippodrome has been waiting to produce Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias since 2020. It’s one of the hottest plays in the country. It fulfills a need. It’s a valuable commodity.
Is it worth the wait or might this be another case of the Hippodrome outperforming the material? Which is not a slight to this particular material, which could bear any number of slights, let alone my pitiful sniping, being one of the hottest, most produced plays in America, or, more precisely the United States of America. In the way of plays, the script is very good; the performances make it even better.
These are people from that quaint period of time 2018. They are Del Valles, Tania and Pablo; and the Butleys, Frank and Virginia.
This play was written pre-pandemic, and before January 6, and before now, so, of course, it’s dated. This review is dated.
A play, however, is one of the temporal arts, and despite the time period in which the play is set, what happens on the stage is always present tense. We’re seeing it happen now. So, to relate it to our lives and our present reality, we try to picture it in our minds and, ok, we just barely can.
Here we are. Here are our most immediate conflicts right up front – and along the baseline, as in tennis: race, culture, politics, sex, all of that is perfectly real. The trick now is to find the comedy.
And not offend anybody.
And you won’t – as long as you get the right people to see the play.
The right people?
Who might it offend?
Or, is it a harmless but entertaining bit of fluff?
Karen Zacarias gives the Latinx couple first serve. It allows them to seize the initiative. These people make sense. We’re on their side. Well, I’m on their side. The tennis metaphor is apt. (see: set geometry) and if we’re already choosing sides, that’s good.
Mihai Ciupe’s set is a geometric marvel. Begin with the Hipp’s unique thrust stage, divide it in two, erect two households, unalike in dignity.
Ironically, Zacarias will use a presentational/representational Brechtian technique applied to bourgeois apologetics. At the beginning and the end, the characters in the play know we’re here and speak right to us.
The cast is strong – the cast of characters, that is, each with a dynamic approach to obtaining her or his objective.
Tania is played winningly by Alea Figueroa an actress who is a seasoned pro at this, having played the role before, and she brings out every nuance of the character, never beyond the bounds of naturalism. Her Tania is sharp and gentle, wonderfully empathetic and charming.
Marco Adiak Voli as Pablo establishes his authority, his command, his stature in character by virtue of his breeding, but in performance the actor makes it known at first sight with the way he owns the set, plays the Hipp thrust stage like a maestro.
Next come the Republicans, if you remember who they were in 2018 and before. Frank Butley defends his open-mindedness by forthrightly proclaiming: “I considered voting for Obama.”
How am I going to like them? How is Kevin Rainsberger going to like this guy Frank? He told me he likes him. How is he going to make him likeable – because dislikeable as both Frank and Virginia are as characters – if we don’t like them somehow, we’re not going to be able to like this play.
Kevin Rainsberger starts by giving Frank a Gene Kelly flair and proceeds to open up his full range of skills, vocally, with a span of tone and pitch that he wails with like a jazz trumpeter, and it jibes with Nell Page’s operatic approach so that the thrill of the two of them sharing the stage in full voice is electric.
It’s because Nell Page as Virginia Butley cuts to the heart of her character and fills it out like an opera singer.
Here is Nell’s acting philosophy put to the test. If you go deep enough in character, into the heart of any human being that you play honestly and openly and true to yourself – the emotions are the same, they are one – and it will come through in the performance. The basic humanity will shine through.
Kevin Rainsberger and Nell Page are married in real life, but it’s not just the chemistry that makes their performances glow, it’s the joint expression of their aesthetic.
Blissfully unaware of their privilege, the Butleys’ marriage is strong. How will they make us like them? By happily agreeing to being the butt of the joke. By being blessedly silly, ridiculously wrong. Glorying in their buffoonery, and, above all, loving each other.
It works. Even Pablo admits it works. “I like you, Frank,” he says, before initiating legal action against him to take over the final foot of his property, heretofore mistakenly ignored in the building of the fence that separates the two neighbors.
As for the Butleys and DelValles: It’s a bourgeois success story.
It’s not about the money; it’s the principle of the thing.
Working class people are less often cast into situations in which it’s not about the money, it’s about the principle of the thing. Those things must be rare. They’re expensive, I guess.
Fortunately, they can work these things out, even in the here and now post-pandemic, post-January 6 world, and, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future (unless you have your Marxist glasses on) – if they have enough money.
The performances are marvelous, varied, unceasingly entertaining, the direction by Kristin Clippard is crisp and fast-paced, the lighting design delivers subtleties of mood and time of day and dissolves from scene to scene, all adroitly handled with Robert P. Robins’ signature polish.
Maybe the white couple are turned into cartoons. But the same could be said of characters in a play by Brecht or Ionesco. Besides, we know already the point of view of the dominant culture. We know where they’re coming from. Tania and Pablo are revelations.
Tania points out that Pablo has been largely oblivious to the class struggle in his native Chile, which privileged him, and has only become outspoken against racial prejudice in the US now that it affects him.
We think about these things when we consider building a wall between us and Mexico, when the Israelis decide to build on the west bank, when ranchers decide to graze their cattle on federal land, we might be reminded of Mark Twain’s unassailable assertion: “There is not one square inch of the earth’s surface in possession of its rightful owners.”
Amanda Nipper’s sound design imbues the play with a jaunty forward thrust and comments slyly on the text.
Erin Jester’s costume design brings out the contrasting yet trendy bourgeois lifestyles in a series of costume changes that have the actors advancing the plot like turning pages of a fashion magazine – leisure, business, retirement, and of course, gardening attire.
As for the garden itself, you’ll get not only tips but a raison d’etre for the entire ecosystem.
With all that going right, there’s almost nothing to bitch about – except that somebody else is actually doing all the work.
Oh yeah, the workers, Alexandra Lopez, Allen McBride, and Andrea Acevado. They are a cheerful lot – they’re being paid, so pulling a fence down or mounting a new one is all the same to them. They constitute the movement and change in both the set and the plot. They attend to business, and they dance and move in rhythm, and they work it, chatting inaudibly in a secret dialogue, and they do what they’re paid to do. Thus the property can be improved, the value increased, and all can live happily ever after – until, say, the banks start crashing. . .
Native Gardens plays the Hippodrome Theatre through March 26.