Art doesn’t happen on demand. (Ask anyone staring a a blank page or canvas, or at a blank wall.)
As John the Evangelist said of the wind: “It blows where it chooses, and you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes.” In Mariela in the Desert, the wind often blows so suddenly and loudly it interrupts conversations.
That’s a graceful clue to the heart of the play. Mariela, now playing at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights, depicts the family of a Mexican painter self-exiled to the northern desert at the height of that nation’s great artistic outburst, the mid-20th century Expressionist Movement.
Jose Salvatierra — a friend of Rivera, Kahlo, Siqueiros and Tamayo — dreams of an artists’ colony in the desert. He and his wife Mariela, also a painter, leave Mexico City; but no one follows. Mariela stops painting to raise their children. After a long dry spell, Jose wins a national prize; but he unaccountably brings the painting home, then falls into a long, terminal battle with diabetes.
This is where we enter the story. By the time we leave, much has been revealed — about the family’s history, about the fickleness of talent and inspiration, and about the painful complexities of love.
Mariela is an early play by Karen Zacarías, one of America’s most-produced playwrights. It has a rough edge or two (e.g., monologs that tell us nothing the characters don’t show us), but it has considerable strength — in its characters, in the courage with which they confront their lives, and in its fearless portrayal of what art can do to the lives it moves through.
Casa 0101 and the Angel City Theater Ensemble stage this work with intelligence and energy. Marco DeLeon’s set places us in a familiar environment, yet keeps us from feeling at home (so do the fluctuating scrim projections). Props (by Alexander Cooper) and costumes (by Abel Alvarado) fill out the world and the characters, and even help to tell the story — as when objects shatter, or when the young professor squirms in a suit he can’t quite fit.
Robert Beltran’s direction is crisp-paced and clear, easily finessing many changes of scene and time. And the actors’ performances are shaped by strong choices. Denise Blasor makes spinster aunt Oliva real, with an unpredictable range of mental and emotional moments; Kenneth Lopez suggests young Carlos’ disabilities, while focusing on his feelings; and Randy Vasquez’s professor flows nicely from ill-at-ease visitor to almost family.
Vannessa Vasquez, as the daughter who inherits the artistic gift (or curse), carves a believable path from anxious homecoming to new wisdom; she also shifts easily from adult to child in flashbacks. Vance Valencia, as her father, gives us a man with talent and an ability to love who’s almost blinded by ambition; he, too, moves deftly between ages, from Jose’s bullish youth to his querulous decline. And Rachel Gonzalez, in an impressively contained performance, always lets us sense the immense forces at play beneath Mariela’s firmly managed persona.
Mariela in the Desert is a valuable play: it corrects some of the blindness of our era. It focuses on Mexico (not the US), on women (not men), and on the human costs of art (not its glories). Casa 0101 and the Angel City Theater Ensemble give us an engrossing, important story told with the skill and sensitivity it deserves.
Mariela in the Desert, by Karen Zacarías, directed by Robert Beltran.
Presented by Casa 0101 and Angel City Theater Ensemble, at the Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. 1st St., LA 90033.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through December 11.
Tickets: <www.casa0101.org> or (323) 263-7684.