5/5/2019 NATIVE GARDENS Aurora Theatre
***½ ( B )
NEIGHBORS AND FENCES AND METAPHORS, OH MY
From Wikipedia: Natural landscaping, also called native gardening, is the use of native plants, including trees, shrubs, groundcover, and grasses which are indigenous to the geographic area of the garden.
Also From Wikipedia: A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two ideas.
So, what does all this "throat clearing" have to do with Aurora Theatre's staging of Karen Zacarías' Native Gardens? I would say, just about everything.
Just try to watch this pleasantly light and entertaining play about neighbors of different politics, ethnic backgrounds, and generations fighting over a fence between their yards, without thinking about a certain political debate over a border wall! Just try to hear the insensitivity and false assumptions about each other coming from both families without thinking about the immigration rhetoric coming from both sides of the political spectrum! Just try to hear dialog about "Native Gardens" and "Invasive Species" without your Oh-No-Not-Another-Metaphor alarm blaring!
Yes, this script is an extraordinarily heavy-handed extended metaphor (dare I say allegory?) saved by a (thankfully) light touch with dialogue, and by a pleasantly un-mean-spirited approach by director and actors.
The Del Valles are a young couple moving into an old neighborhood. Pablo is an immigrant from Chile, raised in wealth, now an attorney with a powerhouse Washington D.C. firm. Tania is a New Mexican, whose family has lived in the same area for countless generations. Next door are the Butleys, Virginia ("Call me Ginny"), a government attorney, and Frank, a devoted gardener, obsessed with winning a local competition. The Del Valles' house has been abandoned for years and is a "fixer-upper." When Pablo invites his firm for a back yard barbecue, Tania shifts into high gear to establish her "Native Garden," which, of course, drives Frank, with his Japanese Azaleas and English Ivy, to distraction, though he is happy that the Del Valles plan on ripping down that ugly chain-link fences and replacing it with an elegant wooden barrier.
But it soon becomes apparent that Frank's garden "bleeds" onto the Del Valles' property by about 20 inches. It's going to get ugly. Especially when there are lawyers on both sides.
Throughout, there are numerous conversations and arguments and assumptions similar to those that pepper punditry every day these days -- Tania talks about being constantly asked to prove her citizenship, Frank "hears" an accent from her (though it is definitely NOT there -- she speaks very little Spanish, or so she says), Ginny is quick to take umbrage when it is assumed she's a conservative Republican (even though she, in fact, is). Pablo, who is, in fact, an immigrant, knows he's the "token" Latinx in his firm, but is determined to make partner, even if it means interrupting his wife's doctoral research to make this back yard party a reality. And everyone is quick to assume the phrase "you people" is an ethnic (or ageist) generalization, when, more often than not, it is used in moments of anger to describe just the couple.
Did I mention that Tania is eight months pregnant? Does it really matter? I suppose it does, considering the Infans ex Machina device that brings the tale to a satisfying conclusion.
Karen Zacarías' is a Latinx playwright who has seen many of her works performed in the Atlanta area by Horizon Theatre (Book Club Play and Legacy of Light), Alliance Theatre (Ferdinand the Bull and Einstein is a Dummy), and Aurora's Spanish Language Teatro Aurora (Mariela in the Desert) (among many others across the country). I have found her work delightfully compelling, with sharp characters and elegant dialogue, but also surprisingly resonant with ideas in conflict, often featuring female characters at odds with their contemporaries and the paradigms of their societies.
Native Gardens is all about chipping away at paradigms, acknowledging them (eventually) and learning how to accommodate them while being true to one's own ambitions and spirit, It succeeds largely due to the efforts of its director Daniel Jáquez, and its cast, Christian Gonzalez and Fedra Ramírez-Olivares (as the Del Valles) and Carolyn Cook and Bart Hansard (as the Butleys). Sharon Estela and Joey Florez Jr. are also on hand as contract gardeners, but more essentially, to facilitate cleverly fluid and rapid scene changes. As individuals, they each create basically decent characters who let themselves be pushed into angry rhetoric and from-the-hip reactive "dirty deeds." As a group, they gel perfectly, and we are left confident that their (eventual) friendship will negate the need for any fences, real or metaphorical.
Scenic designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have created another two-backyard extravaganza (perhaps a bit too similar to their Maytag Virgin set from last season), Half is given over to Frank's elegant garden, rife with an Easter Parade's volume of flowers, the other half given to the Del Valles' dirt and scrub, an Oak Tree dominating the future native garden. It is attractive and functional, and darned if I didn't blame any of the characters for wanting to defend their "turf: by any means necessary. Ben Rawson does a nice job with the lighting, especially in a late scene with both families on stage at the same time, but representing two distinct times -- the Butleys early evening, the Del Salle's mid-afternoon. I would have liked a little more daylight on the cyc glimpsed between the houses, but, that's just a small nit to pick.
I was also impressed with the direction by Mr. Jáquez, particularly his use of the "landscapers" to effect scene changes and let us know "when" the new scene was happening. He seems to have a flair for pace and intimate scenes, and he keeps the action roller-coasting smoothly for a brisk 90 minutes (no intermission). I hope to see more of work (sooner rather than later).
Sure, Karen Zacarías' Native Garden smacks us over the head with a shovel-full of metaphor, but the script pulls us along with its frequent fourth-wall-breaking meta-comments, its brilliantly funny dialogue, and its compellingly engaging characters.
At its native garden roots, this production makes it nearly impossible to "take sides." And, when all is said and done, that's the perfect solution to any border dispute. IMHO, being "American" trumps being "United-Statesian."
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ATNativeGardens)