Playwright Karen Zacarías on ‘Destiny of Desire’ at Arena Stage

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There’s a lot of laughter coming from the cheering audiences at Destiny of Desire, now playing through October 18th in The Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage. Prolific Playwright Karen Zacarías tells us why audiences are loving it!

Joel: Please tell us where our readers may have seen your work on the stage in the past year?

Playwright Karen Zacarías. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.
Playwright Karen Zacarías. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Karen: This past Spring my play Mariela En El Desierto had a great production at GALA Hispanic Theater here in DC. The Book Club Play had wonderful productions at Dallas Theater Center in Texas and the Leshner Arts Center in California plus other theaters in North Carolina, New Orleans, and Phoenix. Einstein is a Dummy was just produced at the renowned Nashville Children’s Theater.

What prompted you to want to write a telenovela for the stage?

The BBC estimates two billion people watch telenovelas every night! I am fascinated by the power and grip of the telenovela story form…and what makes it tick. I also was tired of people wrongly describing serious dramatic work written and acted by Latino artists as “telenovela” and wanted to show what a real telenovela is. I thought it was time to examine the theatricality of a the telenovela on stage and introduce the form to a broader American audience.

What was your intent with this production? What themes did you want to address in this play?

As a Latina playwright, I wanted to unapologetically celebrate and explore one of the most populists form of storytelling in our culture and to show the versatility and virtuosity of an all-Latino cast and director. I wanted to explore the pull and resistance of the telenovela with an diverse audience. I wanted to work with renowned director José Luis Valenzuela to present his sensual and elegant aesthetic that celebrates theatricality over realism. We wanted to remind audiences that theater is made by people and that you can evoke a mansion with a chair and a piece of white cloth. I wanted to entertain a diverse audience while being politically subversive at the same time.

In a nutshell,  I wanted people to be in their bodies and laugh…and then find themselves thinking about some of the more provocative ideas later. Why are most of the songs in Spanish? Why do Latinos live longer than white or Black Americans? Why is 2/3 of the minimum workforce women? The play discusses class, gender and race, in so many ways. In short, I wanted Destiny of Desire to be a very ambitious experiment disguised as a comedy.

(L to R) Marian Licha (Sister Sonia), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Fabiola Castillo), and Oscar Ceville (Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(L to R) Marian Licha (Sister Sonia), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Fabiola Castillo), and Oscar Ceville (Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Audiences seem to be having a very vocal reaction to the play. Why do you think that is?

Some nights  the audience sounds more like a rockers at a concert than sedate theater goers. All of the artists who built Destiny of Desire built it with joy and love. It was a very organic process with the actors and design team. The play and this Arena Stage production has a lot of heart (both literally and figuratively) and people respond to that joyful energy. I think American audiences are hungry to feel…to laugh …to indulge in the guilty pleasure of having fun at the theater. I think the actors do such a good job that the audiences delights and gasps about what fate has in store for them.

It’s a populist play that celebrates people, while juggling some bigger ideas in the background. It is unabashedly going over the top with its humanity and humor. When we built the play, we knew it was defying genre, and as a subversive Latino comedy, we fully expected critics to hate it. That it has gotten so much love from audiences and the press is a wonderful surprise!

Theater buffs will notice that you employ both a lot of Brechtian techniques and makes allusions to Shakespeare. Can you tell us why?

The play is called Destiny of Desire …and the characters are always fighting their fate by taking agency in their life. It’s a play about what happens when women take their own destiny into their own hands. Fighting fate was a major theme in Brecht’s work. The Good Woman of Szechwan by Brecht is all about provoking to question the status quo and to take destiny into their own hands. Brecht created epic theater, which is a theater that constantly reminds the audience that they are seeming actors making a play. Also, he employed the use of titles and “quotes” to remind the audience to think while they were feeling. I wanted this telenovela for the stage to feel and look different than a televised series…and honoring the actionable intentions of Brecht.

And since it is a large cast comedy, I just naturally fell into honoring the energy of Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale; Shakespeare would have been an amazing telenovela writer!

This is an all Latino cast directed by acclaimed director José Luis Valenzuela. Why was it important to you to have an all Latino cast and Director?

Director José Luis Valenzuela. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.
Director José Luis Valenzuela. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Like Viola Davis said when she won her historic Emmy, actors can’t win award for roles that do not exist. Latinos will be a majority in the United States in the next 25 years…and there is a great dearth of opportunity and roles that reflect the diversity and scope of the Latino experience in the US. I think it is vital to give good work to talented people…and to model for a new generation the complexity and depth of the American narrative.

Latinos are a big part of American society…and we need to claim our place on stage, in board rooms, and in Congress. The narrow negative images that are presented need to be challenged on a daily basis by the reality of who we are. That is a big impetus of Destiny of Desire…and the desire to open the path for other Latino plays. The fact that Molly Smith and Arena Stage celebrate and champion the Women’s Voices Theater Festival by putting up a new play written by a Latina with 10 actors and music on the MAINSTAGE sends a powerful national message about our rightful place in the American Theater.

What do you admire most about the performances your cast is delivering?

Our fabulous cast is working like a true ensemble; like a company that has been together for years. They are also so skilled at the tightrope dance of keeping the tone both heightened and real; of going-over the top, with nuance. It’s really amazing acting: Latino Brecht. Plus you have never seen more spirited scene changes…than the ones the Destiny of Desire ensemble delivers. The great thing about this cast is they are all American with roots from all over Latin America. We have a civil engineer, an opera singer, Broadway stars and stars of TV and movies all together making a play with music come to life!

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

How did your designers bring your vision to life at Arena Stage?

José Luis Valenzuela is a visionary director, mentor, and activist. He has assembled a great group of award-winning designers: Pablo Santiago steers away from the jarring lights of most comedies to create a stunning and moody light palette; John Zalewski creates amazing tension and time and place with his sound design; Julie Weiss (who created costumes for the movies Frida, American Beauty, and Blades of Glory) tells an entire story with each one of her jaw dropping costumes, and Francois-Pierre Couture creates an evocative theatrical playground that allows the imagination to run wild. You put this together with Oscar-nominated Rosino Serrano’s rousing original musical score, Robert Barry Flemming’s fluid choreography, and José Luis Valenzuela’s brilliant direction, and you create a show that is both aesthetically  beautiful while being very funny…which is not a theatrical combination we are used to seeing. It’s a feast for the senses…and it makes the brain go, “Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing?”

This production is all about desire and sensual provocation.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Destiny of Desire?

I want them to feel like they just received a present: to leave the theater wanting  to listen to music in Spanish, desiring to watch a real telenovela, thinking of checking the organ donor box on their driver’s license and telling all their friends, “You have to see Destiny of Desire before it closes on October 18th!”

Running Time: Two 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.

LINKS:
Yvonne French’s review of Destiny of Desire at Arena Stage on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Mia Cortez’s review of Mariela in the Desert at GALA Hispanic Theatre on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.