The Women’s Voices Theater Festival ‘Destiny of Desire’ at Arena Stage

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DC playwright Karen Zacarías’ world-premiere musical comedy Destiny of Desire is a delightfully soapy mix of magic realism and situation comedy – so sit back in this bubble bath of great storytelling and be thoroughly entertained!

Directed by José Luis Valenzuela, it features an all-Latino cast whose talent is perfectly matched to the great characterizations by Zacarías, a Latina playwright who lives in Washington, DC, and deft staging by Valenzuela, an L.A.-based director.

Elia Saldaña and Fidel Gomez. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Elia Saldaña and Fidel Gomez. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It takes place in the fictional desert town of Bellarica, Mexico, where two infants are switched at birth so that an heiress grows up in poverty and a farmer’s daughter is raised in luxury. Their paths intersect around age 18 at a fundraising ball for the very hospital where Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza (the smooth and humorous Oscar Ceville) switched them under the watchful eye of Sister Sonia (the powerful Marian Licha), a keeper of secrets who has a fascinating backstory of her own.

Whether backstory or back-stabbing, everyone gives (or gets) his share, and all is fleshed out in the style of a telenovela, or televised novella, a soap opera that runs for about a year. The result is a romping good yarn that borrows many elements from great literature but doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is wacky and wonderful, complete with rewinds for major scenes in which the actors actually move backward speedily and do it again, complete with chipmunk rewind soundtrack.

Fabiola Castillo (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) is a former beauty queen who has married casino owner Armando Castillo (the suave Cástulo Guerra, who was in Terminator 2 and other movies) for money and power. She fears that her macho husband, who may have offed his previous wife, will not want their sickly daughter and so contrives to switch babies.

Fernandez-Coffey portrays Fabiola as upright and uptight, a woman who cannot afford to make a misstep but who dances dangerously close to the edge of discovery of her own sordid story, which she keeps sealed as tightly as her rolling suitcase, a sidekick with a personality of its own that she handles hilariously.

Her natural daughter, Victoria del Rio (Elia Saladaña), is born with a weak heart, so Fabiola switches babies with the farmer’s wife, Hortensia del Rio (warmly soulful Rayanne Gonzales) and husband, Ernesto del Rio (the coordinated and guapo Carlos Gómez). This pair absolutely sizzles in salsa-inspired dance numbers choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming.

The switched daughter, Pilar Castillo (Esperanza America), pens poetry, wants to go to college, and chafes under her rich father’s strictures that she find a suitable husband instead. America’s depiction of her character as emotional and earthy, and Saladaña’s of her’s as a do-gooder math whiz, begs the question of how much of one’s personality is due to nature and how much to nurture.

The cast of 'Destiny of Desire.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
The cast of ‘Destiny of Desire.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Also in town for the party are a prodigal step-brother Sebástien Jose Castillo (Nicholas Rodriguez, who sings a beautiful ballad to music composed by Rosino Serrano). The doctor’s son Dr. Diego Mendoza (the eminently watchable Fidel Gomez), a doctor himself, is also in town, and the four young people pair up for the festivities in ways that reveal more than the plot.

The fun doesn’t stop there. The play roils in crescendos of coincidence, trysts and twists that even seasoned theatregoers won’t be able to predict.

The set designed by François-Pierre Couture features a movable feast of floaty curtains and cloth panels for the hospital and desert scenes. Props on rolling casters become part of the dance macabre as the actors wheel them out with twirls and flourishes accented by additional rolling sounds provided by designer John Zalewski. Flashing lightening and cartoonish back-wall hues like magenta are designed by Pablo Santiago. A long wig for Fabiola Castillo by Anne Nesmith features overcooked tints and bouncy curls, while her costumes by Julie Weiss scream nouveaux riche. Even the exuberant crowd on opening night got into the style of it with a few gents wearing silk blazers emblazoned with pastel medallion prints.

Destiny of Desire is a ‘must-see’ for anyone who likes good stories well-told with a pinch of wack-a-doo, so check your reality quotient at the door and enjoy this delightful production that is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Destiny of Desire plays through October 18, 2015,  in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

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