El Nogalar

Reviewed by Dale Reynolds for www.latin.heat.com

An intriguing, but peculiar and under-written, play is Tanya Saracho’s El Nogalar, making its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre.  Boldly based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Saracho has set her drama in a Mexican pecan farm, Hacienda Las Nogales, just south of the U.S. border, in an area ruled by a vicious drug gang.

In this confusing saga, Maité (Yetta Gottesman), the aging  — but don’t tell her – matriarch of the family that owns a failing pecan farm/ranch, is returning to the homestead, blissfully unaware of the dangers that exist all around her from the narco gang that rules the towns surrounding her hacienda.  Some years before, Maité had taken her youngest daughter, Anita (Diana Romo), to live in the U.S., leaving behind her oldest daughter, Valeria (Isabelle Ortega) to manage the farm, with the help of Lopez (Justin Huen), her childhood companion and now a lackey of the gang.  They are helped by a younger servant, Dunia (Sabina Zuniga Varela), who dreams of leaving to find a life for herself.  Everyone has reason to call themselves “victim” here.

Keeping her connections with Chekhov to a minimum, jettisoning most of the male characters in The Cherry Orchard, even while using as a dramaturge playwright Luis Alfaro, who knows a thing or two about adapting Western classics into Latino-flavored plays, Saracho’s idea is still not fully fleshed-out and she should use this time to add more norte flavor to the script, which needs deepening.   She has also not helped herself by her title:  in Spanish, “nogal” is “walnut,” and Las Nogales or “El Nogalar” would mean the Walnut Farm, but pecan” in Spanish is “pecana.”  (Mucho confusion here.)  But what does work is the mingling of Spanish, English and Spanglish for the American-born actors to use, not leaving the audience very far behind.

And it is the actors which save the day here.  Well-cast and well-used by director Laurie Woolery, the five talented folk up there strut their stuff and find whatever humor lies within the script.  But – more confusion – is the relative obscurity of the characters’ age, Gottesman is somewhat too young, also true for Huen, so the relative ages of the older daughter and the maid confuse the issue of who is who.  Can’t fault the actors, but it demands clarification in the script.

Another potential problem lies in the overuse of the “F-bomb,” which clearly intimidated the older audience the night this critic attended.  While it has become as customary in Mexican culture to use the Spanish-version as in British or American culture, it’s still a word that, when used as an adjective instead of as a verb, is offensive and cuts us off from the undercurrent of what is being stated.

Frederica Nascimento’s minimalist set works for this story and the costume-design of Garry Lennon helps the actors define their characters very handily.  The Fountain’s founders and producers, Deborah Lawlor, Simon Levy and Stephen Sachs, are to be commended for bringing forth stimulating theatre, but now they need to step in and help Ms. Saracho find more comprehension in her ideas.

El Nogalar runs through March 11th, 2012, at the Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood (just east of Normandie).  For tickets:  323.663.1525 or at www.FountainTheatre.com.