Tuesday, September 11, 2018

“Native Gardens” says "Don’t Fence Me In"

Cast of Native Gardens (Naomi Ishisaka)
Native Gardens
Intiman Theatre
(at Jones Playhouse)
Through September 30, 2018

Oh, the difficulties with neighbors! Have you ever moved into a new house and shortly afterward figured out that the perimeter of your plot shows that the next door neighbors have encroached a few inches or feet over your plot line? It’s actually not all that uncommon. That’s what happens to Pablo and Tania del Valle in Karen Zacarias’ play, Native Gardens.

You can see how they handle their dilemma in Intiman’s smart, funny production housed at the Jones Playhouse. The crackerjack cast of Phillip Ray Guevara as Pablo, Sophie Franco as Tania, Julie Briskman as Virginia and Jim Gall as Frank (with some help from Gloria Alcala and Yolanda Suarez) handle all the angst and banter with perfect comic timing.

 Virginia and Frank are the older, white couple next door and Frank is a gardening enthusiast from the old school: Miracle Gro and pesticides. Tania’s family is a farming family and she’s a naturist, to boot, so she’d like to update her yard with native plants (read: weeds) to bring the butterflies and insects for the birds! Clash of gardening, values, esthetics, backgrounds, just about every clash you can think of.

Every character here is smart and generally caring. Each character has a point of view you may well understand, even if you don’t agree with it. The white couple is clearly “woke” – sometimes! At least they think they try to be, but…. Well, we find out where they fall off the cliff of white privilege.

The Latinx couple is a budding power couple, with Pablo being a rising star at his law firm and Tania working on her PhD dissertation, and being very pregnant. They also run into the edges of their own tolerance for interference with their rights or their neighborliness.

Of course, they’re all propelled into an immediate problem because Pablo has suddenly invited his whole new law firm over to the house and in order to make a good impression, the couple has got to do something with their disreputable back yard. But they figure out a plan that can be done in 6 days. Except, the next door neighbor is competing in a neighborhood “beautiful garden” contest he’s determined to win. Can’t they all just get along? Maybe not.

Directed by Arlene Martinez-Vasquez, the production immediately grabs us with a set that instantly describes the situation without saying a word (by designer Lex Marcos) and some very funny stage business by Gall with ear phones and pesticide spray hopping around the yard. Adept lighting by Robert J. Aguilar sets times of day and a lively sound design by Matt Starritt makes the audience want to dance with the garden crew.

It’s not world war or famine or disease, but small human problems like neighbor issues are ones we can all identify with and put ourselves right into every pair of shoes on stage. The changing dynamics and reasons for why each character does what they do is very, very human. And for the most part, also very, very funny. It also smartly explores culture clashes and majority/minority politics in a pretty safe, but determined way. I think you’ll like it a lot!

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