The scene-stealing Bianca Marroquin in "Destiny of Desire." Photo by Jim Cox
Let’s get this understood from the very beginning: NOTHING in “Destiny of Desire” is to be taken seriously. That’s not a trigger warning. Karen Zacarias’ play with music at the Old Globe Theatre isn’t offensive in the least. What it is, however, is a tribute to the anything goes/wildly emotional telenovelas that make American soap operas look like a deadpan episode of “Dragnet” by comparison.
It could be argued that “Destiny of Desire” is as much a spoof of as tribute to the telenovela archetype, and the way the opening night audience at the Globe was howling with laughter and cheers, that’d be a fair point. But Zacarias will tell you she’s not making fun of telenovelas; rather, she’s written one of her own to honor the fact that, as she told me in an interview I did with her for the San Diego Union-Tribune, telenovelas are grounded in real-life situations and people with humanity.
The Old Globe, which produced Zacarias’ “Native Gardens” a few years ago in its theater-in-the-round space, is aiming “Destiny of Desire” toward Broadway and as such is giving it the “big show” treatment. It’s staged in the main theater with a slick two-story set by Rachel Hauck, the top of which is occupied by a live band under the direction of Ricky Gonzalez. Costumes, always a Globe asset, are by Karen Perry here, and there’s flawless lighting by Jane Cox.
If “Destiny of Desire” has a future on the Great White Way, though, it will mainly be because of its crazy tale with its many exaggerated twists and turns and an array of flawed but irresistible characters guaranteed to play on an audience’s sympathies and emotions. None of Zacarias’ “good” people are 100 percent good, and at least one of her “bad” characters is so shamelessly bad that she no question walks away with the show.
That would be Fabiola Castillo, played to the hilt by Bianca Marroquin. In the scheming-baddie tradition of Alexis Carrington or J.R. Ewing, Fabiola arranges for the sick, undersized baby born to her and husband Armando (Al Rodrigo) to be swapped at the hospital for the healthy newborn of a poor couple, Ernesto del Rio (Luis Villabon) and his wife Hortensia (Mandy Gonzalez). As if that’s not enough, Fabiola is playing around with her husband’s grown son, hunky Sebastian (James Olivas). This melodrama all goes down in the fictional Mexican desert town of Bellarica.
Naturally the two girls grow up quickly – like within the first 15 minutes of the show – and are 18 year olds living very different if parallel lives. “Destiny of Desire” brings them together in outlandish ways, though if you’re a telenovela fan …. maybe not that outlandish.
There are far too many plot deviations and detours to chronicle here. Watching “Destiny of Desire” is like bingeing a telenovela’s entire season accelerated into one magnum episode. If along the way you’re wondering what’s what and who’s who and why’s this, that evidently is intended to be part of the fun.
At over two and a half hours in length, that’s more fun that I needed given the material, but that’s because I could see where Zacarias and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson were going with “Destiny of Desire” very early on. Those who become more invested than I in the fate of switched-at-birth girls Pilar (Yesenia Ayala) and Victoria Maria (Emilia Suarez) won’t mind the production’s length one bit.
Part of the explanation for the run time is the inclusion of the play’s original songs. They’re fine, but they don’t add anything substantial to the storytelling. Their chief contribution is giving Marroquin more to do, which I certainly applaud, and providing Olivas the opportunity to beefcake it up.
It’s hard to visualize an actual telenovela cast being as talented as this one is, though. Besides Marroquin, Ayala and Suarez are delightful as the young women, Rodrigo explodes with machismo as Armando and, as a nun (told you this show had everything), Nancy Ticotin intervenes throughout as snide Sister Sonya.
A couple of imaginative touches are inter-scene round cards (like at a boxing match) that foretell what’s to come and intermittent announcements of statistical factoids about American culture, Mexican culture and human nature, some of which are attempts at more serious commentary about societal or political issues.
Catch your breath. That’s a helluva lot going on in a single production. “Destiny of Desire” is overloaded, but it is never, ever dull. Like a cracking good telenovela, it sucks you in and you’re a goner.
“Destiny of Desire” runs through June 25 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.