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  Destiny of Desire

At the Goodman Theatre (Albert)

                                                  By Dan Zeff


Chicago–-During the performance of “Destiny of Desire” currently at the Goodman Theatre, an actor breaks character to step up to a microphone and announce the factoid that 2 billion of the 6 billion people in the world watch telenovelas nightly on television.

That audience of 2 billion consists almost entirely of Spanish-speaking viewers who have an insatiable appetite for the pop art form that could be compared to American soap opera back in the day when soap operas dominated daytime and sometimes evening television in this country. Soap operas have vanished form the American entertainment scene but the telenovela juggernaut rolls on.

“Destiny of Desire” is a successful attempt to bring the telenovela to the live stage. The show, written by Karen Zacharias, originated in California in 2015 as a co-production between Goodman and the South Coast Repertory. Fortunately for local audiences, we are getting the original cast of Latino actors (the production is presented in English) and are they ever good!

“Destiny of Desire” sticks to the traditions of the TV telenovelas. The stories are drenched in passion, sex, some violence, overacting on an Olympian level, and convoluted storylines that rely heavily on coincidences, plot reversals, astounding last minute revelations, suspense, and even a bit of humor. On the evidence of “Destiny of Desire,” there is even social commentary, notably the discrimination against women in the telenovela world (and by extension Spanish society in general). Topically, the Goodman production injected a handful of japes against President Trump that were received with appreciation by the large opening night crowd.

                                                                                    Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

The plot is overheated and improbable but its obvious silliness is no impediment to sucking the audience into the complicated plot, which raises the dysfunctional family theme to new heights. Not that the production adheres to any hyper-realism. Before the show even starts, members of the cast circulate throughout the audience thanking the patrons for attending. In addition to the multiple factoids that pop up throughout the evening, characters flash large poster cards hat announce the content of the scene to come. When they are not actively in the show, the performers sit on both sides of the stage, observing. Periodically, characters break out into song, some in Spanish some in English. 

“Destiny of Desire” may mock the excesses of the telenovela genre (though not that much) but the show doesn’t patronize. Playwright Zacharias celebrates the telenovela as much as she ridicules the form, having fun with the style while still respecting its traditions. As a result, the spectator may laugh at the silliness of it all while still getting caught up in the storylines that build and built into a cluster of revelations that can leave the viewer slack jawed with surprise. You may feel superior to the hurly burly on stage but it grabs your attention span and never lets go.

The basic storyline has an almost Shakespearean familiarity, rely on mistaken identities, separated lovers, and happy endings snatched from disaster at the last moment, to the amazement and satisfaction of all. The story begins with two babies born in a local hospital. The healthy baby is born to a poor peasant couple. The frail baby is born to the wife of the town’s wealthy casino owner. The babies are switched so that the rich parents get the healthy girl and the peasants get the weakling, unknown to the peasants. That switch is the engine that drives the action, which shoots ahead when Pilar (the healthy baby) and Victoria Maria (the frail one) are now 18 years old (one tall, one short, both sexy) and unaware of their true antecedents. But the teenagers bond, in spite of their class divide. By this time the audience should recognize that the laws of probability rest very lightly on a telenovela, but who cares? We’re hooked.

                               Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

The narrative is saturated with sexual complexities, including adultery, whiffs of lesbianism, and incest (or at least what we are led to believe is incest until a tsunami of revelations wipes the moral slate clean, sort of). The chief players in the sexual roundelays are Fabiola, the devious and horny wife of domineering casino owner Armando Castillo, Castillo’s black sheep son Sebastian come back from his wanderings an older and wiser young man, and Mauricio Mendoza, the lecherous and venal doctor who engineered the switch of the babies in scene one.

          The only big loser after the dust settles is Fabiola, mostly because she is a woman in a man’s world and all her machinations weren’t enough to save her skin. For those of a certain age, “Destiny of Desire” recalls the TV series “Dallas” with its illicit love affairs, betrayals, and villainy among the rich. “Dallas” was nastier but “Destiny of Desire” is more visually creative and its emotional explosions more cataclysmic.

          The 11 members of the ensemble each take a central role along with a variety of walk-ons and cameos. They are all splendid, but pressed for a favorite I’d choose Esperanza America as Pilar, the healthy baby. She shrieks and agonizes over the terrible things that are happening to her and those she loves with an operatic intensity that is harrowing. That woman sure can rant, and she can act and sing and dance, too. But then there is Eduardo Enrikez as the contrite son returning home. His Sebastian can do suffering with the best of them, has a terrific singing voice, and survives a ferocious knife attack to get the 18-year old he loves.

          The acting honors extend to Ruth Livier as Fabiola, Castudo Guerra as Castillo, Elisa Bocanegra and Mauricio Mendoza as the peasant parents, Ella Saldana North as Victoria, Ricardo Guiterrez as the despicable Doctor Mendoza, Fidel Gomez as his do-gooding son, and Evelina Fernandez as a hospital nun who weaves in and out of the story and delivers the biggest storyline haymaker of the night near the end. Rosino Serrano acts a little but mostly provides sympathetic musical accompaniment from a piano at the edge of the stage (supported by an unaccredited concertina player). Serrano also composed the score, which sounded just as persuasive in Spanish as the English numbers performed late in the evening.

          The magician who pulls the entire affair together is director Jose Luis Valenzuela. The man deftly incorporates the production’s many non-realistic touches into the melodramatic storyline maze. Under his supervision, the overacting works both as comedy and intense drama. Valenzuela is abetted by the imaginative and functional settings by Francois-Pierre Couture, the costume designs by Julie Weiss, Pablo Santiago’s lighting, John Zalewski’s sound design, and the choreography by Robert Barry Fleming, a man who definitely knows how to stage a rumba and a samba.

          “Destiny of Desire” runs a little too long. Its 2 hours and 30 minutes could be shaved by maybe 20 minutes, but the unraveling of all those plot twists at the show’s end does soak up lots of time and I wouldn’t want to be denied any of them. I entered the theater with fairly low expectations based on the show’s premise, an attitude I suspect was shared by other patrons unfamiliar with a telenovela. But “Destiny of Desire” ends up as great entertainment, plus it’s a cultural learning experience of some significance.

“Destiny of Desire” runs through April 16 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $75. For information, visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Destiny or call 312 443 3800.


            The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.            March2017
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