Tuesday, February 14, 2023

"Native Gardens" at Daleko Arts

It's a good time for Karen Zacarías' smart, funny, socially relevant comedies. On the heels of Theatre in the Round's hilarious production of The Book Club Play, DalekoArts is presenting Native Gardens (last seen in #TCTheater at the Guthrie in 2017). Both are really fun and entertaining shows, but with a depth that might make you think a little about some important themes, while perhaps making you a little uncomfortable (in a good way). Native Gardens deals with subtle racism (and agism, sexism, and classism), inherent biases, immigration, the environment, and what it means to be a good neighbor. With a wonderful cast and excellent design on their small stage, Daleko brings out all of the humor and the nuances in this great script. Take advantage of the mild weather this February and make the drive down to New Prague to see Native Gardens (continuing through February 26).

Frank and Virginia Butley have lived in this upscale DC neighborhood for decades and are nearing retirement age. They're pleased to welcome new neighbors and expectant parents Tania and Pablo Del Valle to the fixer-upper next door. All is perfectly pleasant between them, despite the Butleys' awkward assumption that the Del Valles are Mexican (they're not - he's from Chile and her family has lived in New Mexico for generations) and Tania's descriptions of her plans to plant a native garden that is much more environmentally friendly than Frank's pretty and pristine flowers. The pleasantness dissipates when the Del Valles tear down the ugly chain link fence between the two yards and start to build a new wooden fence, in preparation for a party to impress Pablo's law firm colleagues. While the Butleys are happy about the new fence, they are not happy when it's discovered that the Del Valles' property actually extends two feet into Frank's prize (or honorable mention) flower beds. The disagreement over land, borders, and gardening turns ugly as each side refuses to give up what they believe is rightfully theirs. But ugly in a funny and disarming way, as the tone of the humor never descends into mean or uncomfortable territory. These are well-meaning people, that learn to see beyond their assumptions to live peaceably as neighbors.*

I was fortunate to attend the show on a Sunday, when Daleko hosts post-show discussions with the cast and creative team. Director Adlyn Carreras spoke thoughtfully about the rehearsal process, and bringing her experience as someone who moved from Puerto Rico to Minnesota to the story. Some members of the cast also talked about microaggressions they've experienced, like mispronounced names or racist assumptions, which informs their performance. Everyone in the audience can relate to one or more of these characters, in the biases we might recognize in ourselves, or times that people have made incorrect assumptions about us. But the humor makes it palatable; it breaks down our defenses and allows us to see the truth in a non-threatening way.

Virginia and Frank (Julie Ann Nevill and Rick Lamers) 
vs. Tania and Pablo (Agibale Chagolo and Raúl Arámbula)
The talented ensemble includes Abigail Chagolla as Tania, just as warm and wonderful as she was in Real Women Have Curves at Lyric Arts last fall (a co-production with Teatro del Pueblo, which Adlyn co-directed). Tania's the heart of the show, but she also gets to let loose with some explosive swearing in Spanish. Raúl Arámbula is a good match as her husband Pablo, another nuanced and believable character. Julie Ann Nevill and Rick Lamers play Virginia and Frank with the right amount of righteous indignation, mixed with a possibility to (begrudgingly) change. Although with no speaking lines, Michael Hundevad and Zachary Thompson, who play various workers who come into the garden, serve an important role as they make changes to the garden - ripping out the fence, planting stakes, adding plants - and move the story forward.

A big part of this story is, obviously, the garden. While the two neighboring backyards don't feel as spacious as the script claims, they're well-represented on Daleko's small stage. A literal line down the middle (flower beds and a chain-link fence) separates the Butleys' neat and perfectly manicured garden from the Del Valles' native work-in-progress garden, full of leaves and acorns. The Butleys' pretty blue and white house is in contrast to the Del Valles' brick fixer-upper, with a large stately tree in between. Both gardens go through quite a transformation throughout the show, as do the characters. Who, by the way, are dressed in costumes fitting to each personality - Pablo's lawyer suits, Frank's casual retiree gear, Virginia's working woman attire, and Tania's cute comfy maternity wear. (Scenic design by Robin McIntyre, props design by Tricia Hofeld, costume design by Cynthia Wade Forsgren.)

DalekoArts always makes smart, interesting choices for their seasons, from original works, to beloved classics, to choices that might challenge their audiences. As Amanda White (stage manager and co-Artistic Director) noted in the talkback, New Prague is a community that's 95% White, which is why it's maybe even more important to bring stories from other communities to the stage. This play demonstrates what can happen when people from different communities clash over something as simple and as important as a backyard, how they try, falter, and eventually find a way to live peacefully together.

Native Gardens plays Fridays through Sundays for the next two weekends at The Prague Theater in downtown New Prague. If you're looking to make a night of it, I recommend The Local 105 and 1319 Woodfire Tavern across the street (the former closed on Sundays) for a great dinner-and-a-show evening.

*Plot summary borrowed from what I wrote about the 2017 Guthrie Theater production.


Join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical THE PROM, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Find more info in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for March 4 1pm performance only).