As we grow older it’s easy to regret our choices in life and become frustrated that we won’t reach our full potential before we die. For those of us in the arts, it’s even harder because the appreciation of an artist’s work is so subjective. I went to see a play called Mariela in the Desert at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights. It was written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Robert Beltran, who played Commander Chakotay on the TV series Star Trek Voyager. It’s the story of a family of artists; a mother, father, and daughter, who struggle to achieve recognition for their work as they deal with the harsh challenges of life.
The play is set in 1950 at a remote desert farmhouse in Northern Mexico. Mariela and Jose Salvatierra are a middle-aged couple, who at one time were entrenched in the burgeoning art scene of Mexico City. They, along with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Rufino Tamayo brought international attention to Mexican art. Jose leaves the city with his family to create a utopian artist’s colony in the desert, hoping other artists will follow him to pursue his dream. It turns out to be a disaster. The artists don’t want to leave the city to live in the hot, barren desert and his dream never comes to fruition.
As the play opens, Jose is in the final stages of diabetes and Mariela is caring for him. Life events, including the death of their mentally challenged son, caused her to give up her career as an artist long ago. Their daughter Blanca has been gone for over 2 years studying art at the University in Mexico City and hasn’t been back to visit. Mariela sends her a telegram announcing that her father has died, as a ruse to get her back to the farmhouse.
Blanca returns and is angry that her mother lied about Jose’s death. She has come with her lover Adam, an older Jewish professor from the University who is enamored with Jose’s work. Her mother and aunt Oliva convince her to tell Jose they are already married.
Jose was already a renowned artist before moving to the desert but never achieved the degree of recognition that Rivera and others in his inner circle did. Years before he became ill, he entered an art competition in the city. Each artist was commissioned to turn in 12 works but he got stuck after the 11th and quit. Concerned, Mariela, with the help of their young son, secretly paints the 12th called “The Blue Barn” and ships the collection off to be judged. “The Blue Barn” wins the prestigious prize over many famous artists.
It becomes a famous painting and is heralded as one of Jose’s best works but its style is different than his other paintings. Mariela used symbolism to depict members of their family making it more inward as opposed to Jose’s outward style. He is tortured for years by the fact the painting wasn’t his and in a fit of anger stabs it in frustration. He then sets fire to his studio barn not knowing that their son is inside hiding in a steamer trunk. The young boy dies and both parents suffer intensely from the loss.
As a child, Blanca was inspired by her mother’s artistic talent and becomes a highly paid and recognized artist in her own right. Her painting of Diego Rivera in the nude becomes a success. But Blanca too becomes stuck and questions her talent.
In their early days as artists, Jose convinced Mariela to pose nude for Rivera. She agrees with the caveat that she would, in turn, paint Rivera in the nude but he reneges. Mariela and Blanca’s banter as they discuss the obese naked Rivera is humorous and gives us a glimpse into the life of this Bohemian family.
The able cast is headed by Rachel Gonzales, who plays Mariela as a stoic who never cries. However, her performance is mostly one-note of harsh contrariness, making it harder for me to sympathize. More “contained” sadness and warmth, especially when her daughter comes home and in intimate moments with her husband would have been more effective. Jose, played by Vance Valencia, wears his emotions on his sleeve ranting, raving, and crying easily and often. He is inconsolable that his body has given up on him and that his life’s work has been marginalized.
Denise Blasor is comical and quirky as Jose’s sister Oliva, who has never had children and fears what will happen to her when Jose dies. As Blanca, Vannessa Vasquez clearly defines her rocky relationship with her strong-willed mother, the pain of losing her brother, and her frustration as an artist. Adam, played by Randy Vasquez is believable as a left-wing Jewish academic from the U.S. Kenneth Lopez has a small part playing the seemingly autistic 4-year-old Carlos. I saw him as one of the leads in the rock and roll musical “Eastside Heartbeats.” Although it was odd to have an adult play a child in the play, Lopez sheds light on the challenges of raising a disabled child.
Mariela sacrificed most of her life and life’s work to care for her family and be loyal to her husband. As the play closes, she frees herself from her own self-doubt to reawaken her creativity, and move forward as an artist.
Concurrently with the run of the play, the Jean Deleage Art Gallery located in the lobby of CASA 0101 Theater presents the art exhibit “Diaspora Manifestations From the Heart: Presencia Salvadoreña” featuring the works of artists Dora Magana, Margoth Abrego, and Ricardo Garcia O’Meany. Each share their experience of being forced from their homeland of El Salvador during the civil war conflict.
Mariela in the Desert runs November 4 – December 11, 2016, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 5:00 pm at:
CASA 0101 Theater Main Stage
2102 East 1st Street
Boyle Heights, CA 90033