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The New World Order decade of 1987 to 1996 was, in retrospect, the high point of foodie melodrama in international cinema. Beginning with the American releases of Babette’s Feast and Tampopo and ending with Big Night, it peaked with two early ’90s surprise hits, Taiwan’s Eat Drink Man Woman and Mexico’s Like Water for Chocolate, which won over U.S. audiences by pushing our favorite pleasure buttons, sex and food, and linking them together.
This novelty may seem quaint in the context of our present-day foodie renaissance, with its bad boy celebrity chefs and passionate presenters. But it was a necessary learning moment for many because, as that genre’s archetype, the late Anthony Bourdain noted, Americans love Mexican food but don’t love Mexicans. Food has always been a cultural bridge and an entry point to messier questions of identity, authenticity, appropriation, and historical memory.
Educating Americans about Mexico using food porn wasn’t exactly what author Laura Esquivel had in mind when she wrote the novel on which both the movie and GALA Hispanic Theatre’s new production are based. Like Water for Chocolate is a deeply domestic Mexican saga, a tale of revolution in miniature within one household and, mostly, within one kitchen. Appropriately, a wood-burning stove is always at the center of director Olga Sánchez’s sets and always operating. It also represents the broken promises of the Mexican Revolution as much as its aspirations, though it’s unclear how deliberate that representation is.
The 1910 to 1920 (or thereabouts) revolution swept aside a tyrannical political order without doing the same for equally tyrannical social inequalities. Within the De la Garza family, the Porfirio Díaz stand-in is Mamá Elena, who terrorizes her three daughters in the name of upholding family traditions, including ones that make no sense except to create plot conflict. Most notable is the rule that her youngest daughter, Tita, must never marry and must care for her mother until her death, despite the fact that Elena is wealthy enough to employ multiple live-in servants. Tita, naturally, falls in love at first sight with smooth talking louche Pedro, who, naturally, marries her sister Rosaura instead, but only to be closer to Tita, he says (and she buys).
Esquivel’s novel is, among other things, the Mexican answer to the South American magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, in which the magic centers on the continent’s richest culinary patrimony: dishes so imbued with Tita’s emotions that they make the eaters vomit in grief or tear off their clothes in lust. This stage adaptation can only imply what the movie could depict in full-frontal glory. Nevertheless, the GALA cast and crew, with experience staging magical realist works in the past, draws out the book’s fantastical elements with more of a wink and a nod than the overwrought film did. And in the character of Mamá Elena, portrayed demonically by GALA stalwart Luz Nicolás, playwright Garbi Losada hews closer to the novel.
As usual, GALA’s internationally diverse cast, whose mix of accents don’t always correspond with the Mexican setting, is spot on in every other respect. Anchoring the production is Colombian actress Inés Domínguez del Corral with a vivacious interpretation of Tita, whose pluck never falters despite being literally beaten down by her mother. As her suitor, Pedro, Peter Pereyra strikes the right balance of glum resentfulness and smug entitlement, while Guadalupe Campos, as his neglected wife Rosaura, has the unfortunate challenge of depicting the second-most wronged character in the story as the butt of a series of fart jokes.
Yet the most tragic, and tragically overlooked character in Esquivel’s epic and all of its adaptations is Chencha, one of the De la Garza’s live-in maids. Played by a relentlessly upbeat Karen Morales, she never leaves her subaltern station in life throughout the story and Revolution; she is, at one point, raped in an attack on the family ranch. As the events of a century ago wind their way through the De la Garza household, one president-for-life is overthrown, and the ability of women to choose their sexual partners, and whether to have children or not, becomes a reality. For some women. For those with the privileges of class, the social openings ushered by the downfall of the Porfiriato were genuinely liberating. For those without, things didn’t change much. The lot of the Chenchas of the world merits greater consideration than they have been given by novelists or by politicians. For someone who is both—Esquivel now serves as a member of Mexico’s Congress—it’s even more of a moral duty.
To Oct. 7 at 3333 14th St. NW. $30–$48. (202) 234-7174. galatheatre.org.