"I hate artists!" exclaims Oliva, the old maid resident moralist and gossip who lives with her brother, an ailing has-been painter, and her brother's wife (Mariela, the real genius) in Karen Zacarías' Mariela in the Desert. At Theaterwork, someone was heard to whisper in the audience, "I do too!" Perhaps a measure of the unflinching familiarity of Zacarías' script and the convincing, resonant performances of Theaterwork's cast, by the end of the proceedings, any shred of ***image1***admiration one might have for "creative types" has been largely immolated by the play's revelations.
Zacarías, whose script won the 2004 National Latino Playwriting Award, has in fact written a play we've been watching for a long time, at least as far back as Aeschylus. The raging patriarch, the dried-up, thick-skinned matriarch, the betrayed children, the moralizing chorus, the hapless outsider. This version of the old archetypes attaches to one of the great narcissistic myths of the 20th century, the threadbare cliché of the "tortured artist." Throw in a few family secrets, a tragic death, isolation, dashed hopes, a little bit of martyrdom; voilà, you've got yourself some catharsis.
Inverting Tolstoy's blunt, single-sentence overture to Anna Karenina ("Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"), Zacarías mines just about every cliché in existence regarding artists, the male ego, female self-sacrifice, the children of artists, the lies at the core of family misery. The family in Mariela is unhappy in so many familiar ways, enmeshed in patterns that telegraph entire scenes before the dramatic release arrives. Artists make lousy parents and lousy spouses. Their children go insane, or recapitulate their parents' lives. Artists are liars, megalomaniacs and pathological nutjobs. Artists make lousy human beings.
The play launches with a telegraph from Mariela, played with fierce clarity and conviction by Catherine Donavon, to Mariela's estranged daughter Blanca (Vanessa Rios y Valles). In order to snag Blanca into returning to the family ranch in the desert of northern Mexico, Mariela lies, saying that Jose, Blanca's father, is dead. Sadly, he's not dead, he's just endlessly rattling in that direction, in a solid performance by Wayne Coté that is by turns uncomfortably humorous and pathetic. From the first few scenes, it's clear that everything is going to turn out to be Jose's fault, and Zacarías delivers on that foreshadowing with unrelenting ferocity.
Mariela carries the family and her husband's "painter's block" around her neck like a millstone. We know from an early flashback that Mariela herself is a brilliant artist, that her husband is pretty good too, but suffers from Artist's Disease. That Mariela will pack it all in to prop up Jose and, either because she does this or in spite of her self-sacrifice, the whole thing will go to shit anyway.
Zacarías' script hews close to the formulae. It's the family's lies that are its undoing, it's the frustration of artistic genius that has the power to kill, it's the manic, fragile and tyrannical patriarch who set it all up and it's the wife and kids who suffer.
Theaterwork's production, directed by David Matthew Olson (who also brings brooding and rich vision to the set design), pours a lot of heat and light into this barnburner, surprisingly making for a deeply moving and consistently engaging experience. Supporting roles performed by Virginia Hall-Smith (Oliva), Jorge Martinez (Carlos, the mysterious son) and Adam Harvey (Adam, Blanca's gringo professor boyfriend) shine on a par with the leads. Familiar misery it may be, but we claim it as our own.