Credit: Handout photo by C. Stanley Photography

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Before Arena’s season opener Destiny of Desire begins, theatergoers and cast members mingle—actors start conversations with folks sitting in the front row, and one of the younger actresses knelt in the aisle so an older woman could zip up her nun costume. Taking a cue from last season’s stunning Passion Play at Forum, director José Luis Valenzuela is working to create a sense of connection between cast and audience even before the house lights start to dim.

That sense of community and shared culture becomes important for this staging of Karen Zacarías’ smart spoof of Latin American telenovelas. If you haven’t grown up familiar with this particular flavor of soap opera’s dramatic close-ups and constant wails of “¡Ay, dios mío!,” there is the threat of feeling isolated from the piece. Luckily, with Zacarías’ accessible writing and Valenzuela’s loving direction, Destiny of Desire will be love at first sight for almost anyone.

Like any good telenovela, the plot of Destiny of Desire has so many twists that writing them out would do a prospective viewer more harm than good. Suffice it to say that the play is a riff on Mark Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper: Beautiful young ingénues Pilar Castillo (Esperanza America) and Victoria del Rio (Elia Saldaña) are switched at birth—the former adopted by the ludicrously wealthy Castillo family and the latter sent home with a poor farmer and his wife. Wacky hijinks reunite the now-grown girls, who become best friends and together encounter a whirlwind of mistaken identities, incestuous affairs, attempted murders, and spectacular musical numbers.

It’s the musical numbers that really showcase one of Destiny of Desire’s greatest assets: its ensemble cast. America and Saldaña do well balancing camp with genuine pathos. Oscar Ceville is hilarious in a number of roles, including the lecherous heart surgeon Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza. The most memorable performances, though, are by Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, as Fabiola the gold digger with a heart of dirt, and Marian Licha as Sister Sonia, the nun who will stop at nothing to set things right. Fernandez-Coffey has clearly done her research, nailing the wild-eyed stare of a telenovela diva like Fabiola. Licha brings the calm, unsettling confidence of a woman hell bent on revenge, which is a thrill to watch.

While familiarity with telenovelas is by no means required, it certainly helps one appreciate Julie Weiss’ shockingly dead-on costumes. Fabiola’s every over-the-top outfit will have you begging for another costume change—velour, feathers, and rhinestones, oh my!—but Weiss’ real genius is evident in how she dresses the ensemble. The telenovela costume deals in stereotype: If you’re good, you wear white; if you’re bad, you wear leopard print; if you’re a farmer, you wear a bandana. Weiss nails the distinctive telenovela look.

If there is one hiccup in Destiny of Desire, it is the metatheatrical candy coating that surrounds its light, sugary center. Zacarías and Valenzuela have designed a Brechtian landscape for this silly telenovela, which often intrudes on the play’s trajectory. Throughout, the action halts for a musical or dance number, which is a delightful complement to the play’s overdramatic action. But other moments of interruption don’t work—an actor quoting a disheartening statistic or chastising a member of the ensemble for performing the wrong action, for example.

By its final musical number and dance sequence, it is likely that Destiny of Desire will have you on your feet, swaying to a salsa rhythm. Like the medium it mocks, Destiny of Desire will draw you in with its heightened emotions and larger-than-life characters. One of the play’s many interjections informs that the telenovela is the most popular form of entertainment on the planet. After leaving Arena’s Kreeger Theater, you will understand why.

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