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MARIELA IN THE DESERT is a well-crafted, well-acted, intense family drama

THE BASICS:  MARIELA IN THE DESERT, a drama by Karen Zacarías presented by Raíces Theatre Company, directed by Rebecca Ward, set in an artist’s home in the Mexican desert, stars Victoria Pérez, Rolando Martín Gómez, Melinda Capeles Rowe, Lissette DeJesus, Sean Marciniak, and young Carlos Rafael Maggiolo. It runs through February 5, Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays & Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 6, which is a surprisingly enjoyable time to go see a play. Raices Theatre is using the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Avenue, 3rd floor (381-9333). Plenty of free parking on Great Arrow. $1.00 water, candy, and chips. www.raicestheatrecompany.com

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  At one time, their friends included the famous Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but now, the dream of an artist’s colony in the Mexican desert has been reduced to the ravings of Jose, dying of diabetes, his sister Oliva, constantly muttering prayers, and his younger wife Mariela. They miss their young son, Carlos, who died years ago, and their daughter Blanca, who has gone to the university in Mexico City. Blanca comes home only when Mariela sends a telegram that Jose is dead (not true) and she appears with a gringo, a Jewish professor of art history, who is introduced to Jose as her husband (also not true). Almost center stage, on an easel, with its back to us, is a painting called “The Blue Barn” which, as it turns out, is the 7th character in this play, and, in a way, if not the “inciting force” is definitely “the elephant in the room.”

Mariela In the Desert Trailer from Rafael Mencia on Vimeo.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is a great play, very cleverly constructed, with every character playing a key role. If you liked GROUNDED at the Kavinoky, or perhaps DANIEL’S HUSBAND at BUA, you will like this play which is equally intense and has that same claustrophobic I’m-about-to-go-out-of-my-mind momentum. And it’s all about lies. Lies we tell each other. Lies we tell ourselves.

Where to begin? First off, in a seemingly minor role, Melinda Capeles-Rowe steals several scenes as “Oliva,” the sister of Jose and maiden aunt of Blanca. She provides the moments of comic relief but also grounds the play in the Mexican/Catholic heritage. Without her, it could almost (almost) be a drama about any family, anywhere.

Of course, the actor who lifts this performance from just “community theater” to a more professional level is Victoria Pérez, Co-founder and Artistic Director of Raices Theatre Company who plays “Mariela.” She has paid her dues and has the acting chops and gravitas that allow the audience to relax and enter into the world on stage. Bueno!

Fifth-grader Carlos Rafael Maggiolo plays “Carlos” and, in fact, is the son of Victoria Pérez, and his performance is very believable.

Rolando Martin Gómez, the other Co-founder is “Jose” and he plays “dad” roles well. He’s a big guy with a big voice, and in this play, he’s slightly hindered by the small stage. At first, I was also going to comment that the transitions between being the angry, blustering old guy about to die and the tender husband and father weren’t quite convincing. And I wondered if it were the script or the direction that caused that problem. But now I think that it all stems from the fact that Jose is living with a lie, and so everything he does and says is going to appear “false.”

Fifth-grader Carlos Rafael Maggiolo plays “Carlos” and, in fact, is the son of Victoria Pérez, and his performance is very believable. Another Bueno! Lisette DeJesus plays Blanca and, while her opening monologue may have been a little low keyed, she effectively plays that time-honored role of a young woman torn between her life at a big city university and her love of her quirky family. And, as the “gringo” Adam, the art history professor, Sean Marciniak tries hard to fit in. Perhaps, as with Gómez, he could have benefited with a slightly larger stage.

Shouts of “Bueno” also go to Rebecca Ward for set design.

Shouts of “Bueno” also go to Rebecca Ward for set design. On what I imagine was a small budget, she (with her crew of Gómez and young Maggiolo) effectively created different rooms and buildings using boxes painted to look like adobe. Very clever. Jamshid Vafai is credited for projection design, and showing examples of 20th century Mexican art on a screen in the center of the stage kept the play in context.

But there was an aspect that we often take for granted, and that was the incidental and background music. Opera lovers are familiar with the concept of the leitmotif (a musical “signature” for a character, theme, or emotion) used so effectively in the movies by such composers as John Williams for STAR WARS or Howard Shore for LORD OF THE RINGS. Here Dewel Pérez has come up with leitmotifs which send emotional signals to the audience and add a level of professionalism to this production.

Earlier I referenced the plays GROUNDED or DANIEL’S HUSBAND as examples of well-acted intensity and plays about how a single event can inexorably ruin our lives. But, as with those plays, this play, MARIELA IN THE DESERT, also covers a variety of themes. Asked “what’s it about?” you could say “artists living in the desert,” or “a husband and wife coming to terms with death,” or “a family drama about loss,” or “a play about a wife putting her career on hold to raise a family,” or “it’s about a girl going to college, but in the end becoming her mother anyway” or “it’s about lies and the great damage they can cause.” It’s all of that and more. I love well written plays with all sorts of shades and nuance and a kaleidoscope of ideas and emotions. This is one of those plays.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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