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Theatre Review (LA): El Nogalar by Tanya Saracho at the Fountain Theatre

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The Fountain Theatre is known for its adventuresome choices, including becoming the leading advocate of the plays or Fugard and sending a few of its productions out to a life beyond LA. The most recent example of that is the optioning of the play Bakersfield Heights for London and New York.

The Fountain’s most recent production is the West Coast Premiere of El Nogalar (The Pecan Orchard) by Tanya Saracho. The play is a retelling of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard set in the midst of the Mexican Drug Wars. This is an intriguing idea on several levels. First the play exploits the universal nature of the themes, the effects on society of revolutionary changes, nostalgia for times gone by, and the necessity to change. Second, we get an example of contemporary Mexican literature. Most Spanish plays we Anglos are exposed to are the classic plays of De Vega or an occasional Calderon, but those are Spanish and not Mexican. (Attempts have been made to make them Mexican, with varying results.)

In the case of El Nogalar the results are decidedly mixed. First, the dialogue is a combination of English, Spanish, and Espangles. This keeps the audience on their toes but can be a distraction in terms of getting involved with the characters. Nevertheless the story isn’t all that difficult to follow, especially if one knows The Cherry Orchard.

Unfortunately the play is not as good as the original and suffers accordingly. It is more of an exercise than a reimagining. The characters are not nearly as developed as in Chekov and because they are more modern, lack the innocence that pervades Chekov and makes for the varying degrees of tragedy and comedy in his work. Those elements are still present but watered down considerably.

The cast is very good with strong performances from all involved: Sabina Zuniga Varela, Yetta Gottesman, Isabelle Ortega, Diana Romo, and Justin Huen. The director is Laurie Woolery with a set by Frederica Nascimento. El Nogalar will be performed at the Fountain Theatre until March 11.

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