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Theater review: 'El Nogalar' at the Fountain Theatre

February 2, 2012 |  3:00 pm

El Nogalar
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.

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-- 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.

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