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Native Gardens

a Comedy
by Karen Zacarías

COMPANY : Aurora Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Aurora Theatre [WEBSITE]
ID# 5495

SHOWING : May 02, 2019 - June 02, 2019



Neighbors clash in a dazzling new comedy about a battle for the backyard. In one yard, Frank and Virginia, a well-established D.C. couple trim a prize-worthy pristine garden. In the other, ambitious attorney Pablo moves in with his very pregnant wife and doctoral candidate Tania, a woman with a penchant for native flora. When a disagreement over the property line quickly escalates into a war, taste, class and entitlement push them all over the hedge.

Virginia Butley Carolyn Cook
Ensemble Joey Florez
Pablo Del Valle Cristian Gonzalez
Frank Butley Bart Hansard
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The Maytag Ex-Virgin
by playgoer
Monday, May 20, 2019
At a theatre usually presenting two-act shows, you should inform the audience when you’re presenting a one-act production lasting an hour and three quarters, at least in the program, if not also in the curtain speech. You certainly shouldn’t make a point of mentioning that you have an intermission sponsor when there’s no intermission. On opening weekend, Aurora ignored those simple rules. During their production of "Native Gardens," you could feel the palpable tension in the audience after the first hour or so, as one scene after another terminated without an act-ending finish. Then, when one comes, it’s not the end of the act at all; there’s another scene following it, tying things up and letting the audience escape to the restrooms to relieve their bladders.

For "Native Gardens," Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have designed another massive set, this one reminiscent of last year’s "Maytag Virgin" at Aurora that similarly showed a view of two houses, one nicely appointed at stage right and one a bit deteriorated at stage left. Here, the two-story house at stage right belongs to Virginia and Frank Butley (Carolyn Cook and Bart Hansard, reunited as husband and wife, as they were in "Lombardi"). The window-filled, two-story brick house at stage left belongs to Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Cristian Gonzalez and Fedra Ramírez-Olivares). We see the backyards of both houses. The Butleys’ is manicured, with a polished stone patio and stacked stone flower beds simply brimming with colorful artificial flowers. The Del Valles’ backyard is all dirt and dead plants, except for the enormous oak tree far stage left.

The two yards are separated by a ramshackle chain-link fence. The plot hinges on the fact that the fence is not strictly on the legal boundary between the two yards. Urgency is supplied by the Del Valles’ need to get their yard in shape for an office party at the end of the week. Racial, cultural, and ageist animosity sparks the discussions between the well-established Butleys and the latinx new-comers, the Del Valles. It’s all very up-to-date in political references and hot-button cultural issues. The sociological content battles with the plot for supremacy in Karen Zacarías’ script.

Daniel Jáquez has staged the show with a distinctive flair. Two gardeners (Sharon Estela and Joey Florez Jr., who really should be given better billing) come out at the start of each scene and do various bits of yardwork at one house or the other, often breaking into dance moves to the Latino music playing in Kevin Frazier’s sound design. As part of their duties, they display placards indicating the day and time of each scene, as the action moves from Monday of the week toward the party planned for Saturday and the garden show judging scheduled for Sunday. The placards are often revealed as the underside or backside of one of Cody Russell’s numerous gardening-related props. It’s a clever touch.

Courtney Flores’ costumes help underline each character’s economic position, and they change from day to day, but not in a way that is overly noticeable. The costumes aid the play rather than trying to become a superfluous point of focus.

Ben Rawson’s lighting design is similarly subtle, raising or lowering general illumination to reflect time of day. There’s one scene in which the two couples carry on separate conversations unheard by the other couple, while sharing the stage and sometimes speaking phrases in unison. The lighting does nothing to help delineate the dual nature of the lines, and it looks a bit odd to see both couples in general lighting, just as they are in scenes in which the couples converse across the chain-link fence.

The script is sometimes heavy on the side of polemics, with Ms. Del Valle extolling the benefits of gardening with indigenous plants (i.e., "native gardens"), while Mr. Butley comes down on the side of pesticides and non-native flowers. The two couples are clearly designed to reflect opposite views on almost every topic that is broached. Even gender stereotypes come into play. Ms. Zacarías finally creates a détente between the couples to end the play, but it’s pretty schematic in execution, reflecting the see-sawing tone of the overall script.

Performances are all good. Mr. Hansard has a true flair for putting a comic spin on lines and actions, and fellow old pro Carolyn Cook does a terrific job of disguising line flubs with in-character ad libs. Ms. Ramírez-Olivares gives a strong, heartfelt performance that perhaps overshadows the performance of Mr. Gonzalez as her more strait-laced stage husband, but all the actors are somewhat hampered by the necessities of the script to spout party-line views on the topics that drive the play’s conversations.

Is the play a masterpiece? No. Does it hit on a lot of current-day issues? Yes. Does it make the issues arise organically from the personalities of the characters populating the piece? Not really. Is it entertaining? Yes, to begin with, but the entertainment value fades the longer the play stretches past the expected midway point at which an intermission would normally occur. Pee before the play begins and you’ll be prepared for this butt-numbing marathon of a show. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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