Making Chekhov Californian

By Dale Reynolds

When a respected playwright decides to explore communities which are not her own, how and why does she take this excitement on?  Dorothy Fortenberry, 37 made a theatrical choice to take one of her favorite plays, Anton Chekhov’s last drama, The Cherry Orchard, (1904) and transplant her action into a Northern California vineyard.

In it, Species Native to California, set a day before the 2016 presidential election, two families – utterly disparate – live together in this vast grape-growing farm.  One family is WASP, the other family a Mexican mother who has lived in this town since she illegally crossed the border seventeen years before, bringing her infant with her.  For Fortenberry, this was the setup she wanted in order to explore how these familial relationships work.  Caucasians and Latinos, plus La Llarona as the boogeyman character who forces this uneasy balance to fall apart — families with unspoken assumptions and unequal lives.  As she puts it, “it’s a deceptively gentle comedy about family, land, labor and loss.”

Fortenberry, a white and Catholic citizen, is a native of Washington, D.C, another city similar to Hollywood which thrives with a strong local industry.  A graduate of Harvard, with post-graduate schooling from Yale, she is currently married to a composer/sound-designer, Colin Wambsgans, with two daughters.

In the play we get to know these two families who have lived together for a decade — one white and progressive, one undocumented — in this NoCal wine-country estate in something like harmony. But political changes and financial mishaps leave them both suddenly facing uncertain futures. As everyone clamors to save the estate, a vengeful ghost haunts the grapeless vineyard, intent on breaking the steadiness. Mexican folklore meets Mendocino County in homage to The Cherry Orchard. 

“I am struck by how many of Chekhov’s themes resonate today, including the importance of land – specifically, the relationship between those who own it and those who work it.  In Chekhov’s play, there’s always a question of the land that was productive and what is now not used or desired by the family that owns it, but desired by the other family who have worked it, Fortneberry told us.  “I am trying to explore the reality of who works the land in California; who have the rights, and who is willing to stick up for you.  The WASP family is well-intentioned aristocracy; liberals who don’t know what they don’t know about others.”

Fortenberry is also fascinated by alliances where the parties might have very different views of the relationship. “When I was younger, I had a friend who invited an undocumented family to live with her, and I always wondered what that dynamic was like.  I wondered if both families would describe it the same way.”

A friend introduced her to a theatrical company who were willing to produce the play.  “It took me about a year to write it, partly in Guanajuato, Mexico.  My Spanish is pretty rudimentary [she took classes which allowed for more understanding of the language than the ability to speak it], but I felt it was important that we use some Spanish in it.  My cast has been very helpful making it accurate.”

Fortenberry has written several plays, one for the respected Humana Festival some years ago, a ninety-minute one-act, “Partners,” about gay and straight couples in 2014.  “I like writing about people not like me, so I can ask my casts to help me.  I listen to them.”

After her successful job writing for CW’s The 100, she landed a plum job on the writing staff Hulu’s new adaptation of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision of a future America under the domination of Fundamentalist Christians, The Handmaid’s Tale.   

One of the actors in the show is Bronx-born Latina Eileen Galindo, fluent in Spanish, to play the Mexican immigrant mother, Gloria.  “I like Dorothy’s writing as she allows her characters to operate from a deep sense of subtext – the motivations of the characters are fully layered and complex.  Her writing is rich.  We don’t see nearly enough of that.”

Galindo’s background, as a mixture of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Spanish, is passionate about children’s television, having been involved in several award-winning projects, including seventeen years playing Mom on Nickelodeon’s Dora The Explorer, in Phineas and Ferb, and in the new version of Sid an Marty Krofft’s Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (with Johnny Whitaker).”  She’s appeared Off-Broadway, and in U.S. Regional Theatres, including L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum in a 2010 production of The House of Bernarda Alba, opposite Chita Rivera.  

What has been most useful to this ageless actress (“I’m an old soul as an actor; I love watching classic films on Turner Classic Movies”) is how Fortenberry’s writing of long scenes, up to twenty pages, contrasts well against the norm in television shows of 2-5 pages, allowing more character depth.  “I think Dorothy is a future great writer as she writes serious theatre.  This play is valuable – it has a lot of toughness to it, dissecting as she does liberals who think themselves beyond prejudice, but exposing themselves as being unconsciously racist with their discomfort with those of color.  This just adds to Los Angeles theatre’s growing to all the challenges in developing serious work.”

Species Native to California runs May 13 through June 11, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. (dark Sunday, May 28). Two preview performances take place on Thursday, May 11 and Friday, May 12, both at 8 p.m. All tickets are $30Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave in Los AngelesCA 90039. On-site parking is free. For reservations and information, call 323-380-8843 or go to www.iamatheatre.com.

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