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Local playwright Karen Zacarías has been busy. Five of her works are premiering next season around the country, including three at local venues. She’s awash in fellowships, including Arena’s Resident Playwright program, and spearheading local initiatives like the Young Playwrights’ Theater. Zacarías hasn’t let her talent wither. Funny timing, then, for GALA’s reupping of her decade-old play Mariela en el desierto, about a woman who keeps her artistic promise under wraps.
This is the District premiere of the Spanish-language version of this play, after a local run several years ago in its original English format at the Theater of the First Amendment. But the material seems like it was always meant to be performed in Spanish, with its heady discussions of Mexican artistic identity and excavation of a specific brand of Latino romanticism. The language feels more streamlined, more befitting its setting. When the protagonist argues with an American-born art history professor over beauty versus truth in Mexican painting, how could that conversation unfold in any language but Spanish?
We’re in the desert, where the stoic Mariela (Luz Nicolás) and her painter husband José (Roberto Colmenares) retreated during the height of Mexico’s mid-century modern art movement. Palling around with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo convinced José that his art would be best served by raising his family among the sand and coyotes; as he constantly reminds us, the desert is “God’s canvas.” Perhaps, but it’s also where God exiled the Israelites for 40 years after they angered him. Now José lays dying, with a lukewarm artistic legacy, and Mariela, the silent engine that from behind the scenes kept her self-exiled family running, is once more left to pick up the wreckage.
Mariela has shades of the “strong embattled woman” figure dramatists love so much—she gives up her own promising artistic talent for the good of her family, specifically for the good of her husband’s career, while keeping her reservations bottled up deep inside. But Zacarías makes wrinkles. José isn’t a monster, and Mariela, whose strategy consists of lying to her family when it suits her, isn’t just a long-suffering saint. As Mariela, the wonderful Nicolás gives a precise, measured performance, heavy but not suffocating. She works especially well with Alina Collins Maldonado as Mariela’s daughter, who’s living the life her mother never could as a successful painter in Mexico City.
Director Abel López keeps the pacing pleasantly brisk for a story set in a stifling desert hacienda that’s mostly about remembering things. The brown-heavy production design channels the setting’s arid majesty, and there are nice pivots between family tragedy, arty dialogue, and some telenovela silliness (one character mugs to the audience at the act break).
Much of the play revolves around the history of José’s best-known painting, an abstract autobiographical piece called “The Blue Barn” that is so different from his other works there’s an obvious buried secret. The painting becomes too convenient of a dramatic device, lacking the subtlety present in the rest of the play. In any language, Mariela’s presence is enough to communicate the heartbreak of sacrifice and lost promise.
3333 14th St. NW. $20–$50. (202) 234-7174. galatheatre.org.