“Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarías now in its West Coast premiere and playing on the Sheryl and Harvey White stage at the Old Globe Theatre through June 24, directed by Edward Torres is an equal opportunity offender; race, sex, entitlement, ageing, culture, and immigration you name it. Both the gardens and the gardeners are up for more than they can handle.
Imagine moving into an upscale neighborhood in an old established area of D.C. and being stoked that you have the opportunity to fix your garden any way you like since the only things growing are weeds and a huge oak tree that drops acorns on the neighbors well manicured lawn?
Imagine those same next -door neighbors with a pristine English style garden and feeling very above it all knowing how beautiful it is and all the work gone into it?
Now imagine having to confront them about taking down the fence that separates the two yards? To top it off some of the most treasured plants in that garden will need removing as well.
Sounds like it could be a plot for some high drama and legal wrangling or a great start for a sit-com bringing the two families, from two very different backgrounds and cultures, separated by the fence as a demilitarized zone, close to war.
In playwright Karen Zacarías’ “Native Gardens” the subject was definitely not roses.
|Mark Pinter and Peri Gilpin|
Frank Butley (Mark Pinter) is the proud champion of an almost first place winning formal English garden in his upscale historical neighborhood in DC. He’s a devout Republican a semi-retired federal employee with connections and has a love and passion for gardening. His son works in the Library of Congress and Frank thinks he’s ‘homosexual’. And oh, BTW he ‘almost voted for Obama’ in the last election.
His wife Virginia (Peri Gilpin), is supportive, not as Blue Blood as Frank with same political leanings and feels just as entitled. She is an engineer at Lockheed Martin. She broke the glass ceiling in her firm and she’s not shy about letting us know. “I’ve been with them so long now, I have my own bathroom”.
|Kimberli Flores and Eddie Martinez|
On the Democratic side of the fence, a young and very pregnant couple, Tania Del Valle (Kimberli Flores) and Pablo Del Valle (Eddie Martinez) are very excited to be in their very first house, a fixer upper.
He is originally from Chile and from a wealthy upper class family. He is also the token foreigner and an up and coming lawyer in a big firm. He has big plans for himself if he plays his cards right. She is from America before New Mexico belonged to the U.S. (“I am American. I don’t speak very much Spanish.”)
|(L to R)Mark Pinter, Kimberli Flores, Eddie Martinez and Peri Gilpin|
She is also a doctoral student conducting some identity experiments. She is doing her Doctoral in anthropology. She is also a member of the Individual Gardeners of America. We ‘share in the responsibility in helping biodiversity in our gardens. (Frank: “Native Gardens? Sounds very exotic.”)
And so begins the gardening war of the neighbors but not before Tanya and Pablo discover that two feet of Frank’s garden is on their property.
Yup, the surveyors found, improbable that it was never discovered over the years, but let’s go on that assumption, that the Butley’s property line is well into their neighbor’s yard.
|Kimberli Flores, Gardeners and Peri Gilpin|
With a promised BBQ with his fellow law partners, Pablo and Tania have to get the yard fixed up PDQ and with no time to spare. They hire gardeners to get the place up to date. There are two short theatrical vignettes between scenes and is where Zacarías’ play goes astray and all hell breaks loose and not for the better.
Gardeners (Jose Balistrieri and Alexander Guzman) come and go with their Boom Box, the chain link fence comes down, surveyors forbid a new fence to be erected between properties (with a little pull from Virginia’s influence) and a play about gardens and good neighbors devolves into a shouting match about everything else including entitlements, ageing and immigration.
On a scale of 1-10 the play becomes an opera of grand opera proportions in slow motion (Mikhail Fiksel) that soon collides with cartoonish play by play removing plants and hauling plants away, as the two couples duel to the finish or when Tania goes into labor, in a highly choreographed dance of the clashing neighbors.
|Eddie Martinez, Peri Gilpin and Mark Pinter|
As mentioned the play isn’t really about property lines and formal gardens. Zacarías uses it as a metaphor for privilege, nativism, race and whatever else you might find offensive in her ‘Gardens’, that don’t need insecticides to kill off the good neighbor creed but does need some push back and breathing room.
Everything in their conversation’s about what a garden should look like happens at such high-level performances it’s like mating elephants; it’s accomplished with a great deal of roaring and screaming. Exhaustion sets in fast and what aspires to be comedy loses its luster and slips into farce.
|Kimberli Flores, Eddie Martinez, Peri Gilpin and Mark Pinter|
Fortunately the all around and exceptional cast gives some credibility to what’s going on on stage or in the respective gardens and while director Edward Torres does give us some laugh lines the cost is too high.
Set designer Collette Pollard designed a pristine back yard look of an English garden, plush wrought iron garden chairs and a beautiful looking full grown, no overgrown oak tree with small patches of weeds spread about in the Del Vale’s yard. (“This is beautiful with our gorgeous tree.”) It is a character all by itself enhanced by Amanda Zieve’s lighting design.
If one could chose sides or corners, you would find me in Tania and Pablo’s, or what might look like the underdog’s side.
But don’t be fooled. Both Flores and Martinez are exceptional in their roles as the outsiders. Both give strong performances worthy of having any garden they like, taking second place to no one. The couple that came in as the outsiders now feels as Tania declares “We are now the man!”
Gilpin is no slouch either as Virginia Butley. Just knowing that she rose to the top of an all male firm show she has cojones and shows no shame when she uses her influence to stop the Del Valle’s from putting up a new fence. Dressed to the nines in Jennifer Brawn Gittings, she always looks at the top of her game.
Mark Pinter is the other half of the Butley’s and doesn’t mind flaunting his importance and righteous indignation either. That aside yours truly found his character the least convincing, the most exaggerated, over the top of the four. Some of the getups he wears to prune and spray his garden boggle the imagination, but kudos to Gittings for ferreting them out.
At the end of this 90 or so minute frolic that ends well and all’s well doesn’t satisfy well.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 24th
Organization: The Old Globe
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre
Photo: Jim Cox