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By Niusha Nawab

“The telenovela is the most popular type of story in the world. Every night, over 2 billion people, one third of the worlds population, tune in to watch these stories.” This is one the last messages made in Destiny of Desire at Arena Stage. Written by longtime D.C. playwright Karen Zacarías, Destiny of Desire is a satirical telenovela written for the stage. It is a telenovela in spite of itself, making us laugh at it’s ridiculousness while moving us with it’s strong and sincere characters whose desires push them to craft their own destiny’s. And yes, title drops like that are riddled throughout.

On a stormy night in Bellarica, Mexico, the poor farmers Hortensia (Rayanne Gonzales) and Ernesto (Carlos Gómez) Del Rio arrive at the hospital to have their baby as does Fabiola Castillo (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), 2nd wife of wealthy casino owner Armando Castillo. Aided by Doctor Jorge Mendoza (Oscar Ceville) and Sister Sonia (Marian Licha), the babies are born. Hortensia and Ernesto’s baby is a healthy, strong baby while Fabiola’s has a weak heart and is expected to die. Fearing Armando Castillo’s wrath, Fabiola demands the babies be switched. Dr. Mendoza consents. Sister Sonia protests. Fabiola decides she will hire Hortensia as her maid as penance. Doctor Mendoza switches the babies, Armando Castillo (Cástulo Guerra) arrives, no-one else knows of the switch, the sickly baby nearly dies, and we move on to 18 years later. Dr. Mendoza visits Hortensia to gain her love. Hortensia rejects him. Ernesto walks in to find them. Their daughter, Victoria (Elia Saldaña), thinking Dr. Mendoza is a bandit, shoots him… in the chest! Hortensia takes the blame. Meanwhile, Pilar (Esperanza America), the daughter raised by the Castillo’s, meets a handsome stranger in the park and falls instantly in love. She returns home to her wealthy parents who want to marry her off. Victoria arrives, asking for the job as the maid. Fabiola rejects her at first, fearing the truth, but uses her to blackmail Pilar into attending the charity ball for the hospital, where a suitor awaits. Pilar decides that she and Victoria will switch places, Victoria playing Pilar and Pilar playing a maid. Armando and Fabiola hear that Armando’s disowned son, Sebástian, from his first wife, has returned to win his honor back. Fabiola goes to Sebástian (Nicholas Rodriguez), revealing that he is the handsome stranger Pilar met in the park and that Fabiola had him disowned so she could continue her love affair with him. Fabiola goes to the hospital to ensure that Dr. Diego Mendoza, son of Jorge Mendoza, will attend the charity ball and suit Pilar. Diego (Fidel Gomez), tending to his father, now in a coma, does not wish to go but Fabiola bribes him with a large donation to the hosptial. Ernesto warns Pilar that he will reveal their past to Armando if anything happens to Hortensia. Sister Sonia warns her that she will reveal the switch to Armando if anything happens to Victoria. Sebástian wins Armando’s love and respect with a plan to save the hemorrhaging casino. The ball arrives and the girls are free to dance with Diego, who thinks Victoria is Pilar, and Sebástian, who thinks Pilar is a maid. Everything is perfect until the girls miss their chance to switch back and all of the secrets begin to fall apart. This is only a taste of the criss-crossing story of Destiny of Desire at Arena Stage.

My companion said the work was a great mixture of entertainment and poignancy. Yes, the plays riffs on every possible stereotype about telenovelas, Latin culture, and theatre conventions (there are far too many to list). Yet it contains numerous messages about the lives of women, of Latino people, and of families, as well as social ills, and storytelling, all told through “the-more-you-know” style facts. Karen Zacarías has written a play that neatly contains everything and the kitchen sink.

Not to be outshined, José Luis Valenzuela’s directorial concept of setting the story on a TV sound stage highlighted everything the play wanted to do, comical or otherwise. It created an environment where actors would be “off-screen” while still onstage, reminding us that this is a story and we should appreciate it as such. His use of actors as story writers/directors pushes this even farther, while efficiently expressing Zacarías’ work. Rosino Serrano’s songs are ludicrous, big, humorous and meaningful and Robert Barry Fleming’s choreography is precise and passionate. And the stage pictures are wild as well!

The cast committed to their characters in a way that couldn’t have been more fitting of the story and took the absurdity so seriously that they couldn’t have been funnier. Yet we were still moved by them as we laughed, hearing their cries for stability and love and a secure future. Guerra and Fernandez-Coffey reveal their characters’ wealth, status, and self-image splendidly in their movements, Rodriguez’ Spanish ballad a la Julio Iglesias meets nothing but cheers and whistles, and Licha’s strong presence is a reminder of the stakes for all in this world.

The designs for the show fit the telenovela style brilliantly. François-Pierre Couture’s set-within-a-set was mobile and efficient but also allowed for choreography and melodrama to exist within the scene changes. Julie Weiss’s costumes created a setting for Bellarica that was clear and distinct, highlighting everyone’s place in a modern Latin society. Pablo Santiago’s lights and John Zalewski’s sound made every moment as telenovela-cheesy as possible while effectively driving the mood of the play. Anne Nesmith’s wigs (a whole design to themselves) were large, flashy, and, best of all, easy to remove.

There’s a reason the telenovela is the most popular type of story in the world.