Playing with Destiny: Bringing the Small Screen to the Mainstage

Andy Knight
 | Oct 11, 2016
Destiny of Desire Cast

THE CAST: (l. to r.) Mauricio Mendoza, Elisa Bocanegra, Rosino Serrano, Ella Saldana North, Fidel Gomez, Eduardo Enrikez, Evelina Fernández, Esperanza America, Ruth Livier, Ricardo Gutierrez and Cástulo Guerra.

As the house lights dim, actors gather on the Segerstrom Stage to introduce the evening’s entertainment: “Destiny of Desire, an unapologetic telenovela in two acts,” they say as an ensemble. Then, with a flourish of music, the actors assume their roles, and the stage transforms into the desert town of Bellarica, Mexico. It is here, at the local hospital, on a rainy and stormy night, that the play begins.  

Destiny of Desire's Creative Team

Destiny of Desire received its world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in September 2015, and South Coast Repertory is thrilled to produce the play’s second outing, in a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Although SCR’s relationship with playwright Karen Zacarías spans decades—including presenting a reading of her play The Sins of Sor Juana in the 1998 Pacific Playwrights Festival and producing her children’s musical Jane of the Jungle as a part of SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences season in 2012—Destiny of Desire marks her mainstage debut at the theatre.  

Director José Luis Valenzuela, who helmed the Arena production, also makes his mainstage debut at SCR with Destiny of Desire. Valenzuela, the artistic director of the Latino Theatre Company and the Los Angeles Theatre Center, has reassembled his design team from Arena to bring the SCR production to life. Scenic designer François-Pierre Couture and sound designer John Zalewski both return to SCR for Destiny of Desire, while costume designer Julie Weiss, lighting designer Pablo Santiago, choreographer Robert Barry Fleming and composer/musical director Rosino Serrano all make their SCR debuts with the production.

The cast includes Esperanza America, Fidel Gomez, Cástulo Guerra, Ella Saldana North and Rosino Serrano—all of whom will reprise the roles that they originated at the Arena—as well as Elisa Bocanegra, Eduardo Enrikez, Evelina Fernández, Ricardo Gutierrez, Ruth Livier and Mauricio Mendoza. 

Hortencia and Ernesto del Rio, a poor couple, arrive at the hospital in a panic. Hortencia is in labor and the baby is coming soon. They are met by Sister Sonia, a kind yet mysterious nun, who runs off to fetch Dr. Mendoza. But Dr. Mendoza is busy with another delivery: beauty queen Fabiola Castillo, wife of wealthy casino owner Armando Castillo, also is at the hospital with a baby on the way. Fabiola’s weak heart is causing complications, and Dr. Mendoza must stay with her. And so Sister Sonia, with no other option, delivers Hortencia’s baby girl on the hospital’s dirty floor. At the very same moment, Fabiola successfully gives birth to her own baby girl.

The Del Rio Family

​The Del Rio family: Elisa Bocanegra, Ella Saldana North and Mauricio Mendoza.

But Fabiola’s baby is tiny and has a heart condition, which disappoints the beauty queen who strives for perfection in all aspects of her life. When she sees Hortencia’s healthy baby—brought into her room by Sister Sonia—Fabiola concocts a plan to switch the babies. Sister Sonia resists at first, but Dr. Mendoza, who recognizes the power of the Castillo name, convinces the nun to keep the secret. The switch is made. Moments later, Armando arrives to meet his new child and names her Pilar Esperanza. Like Armando, Hortencia and Ernesto have no clue that the child given to them is not really theirs. She is a sickly baby and will need medical care her whole life, but Hortencia and Ernesto call her a blessing from God and name her Victoria Maria.

Eighteen years later, Pilar and Victoria have grown into smart and strong-willed young women. Pilar is an aspiring poet, but her parents disapprove of her academic ambitions and hope she will settle down with a suitable husband soon. Victoria also dreams of a great future, but her heart grows weaker every day, and her parents struggle to pay for proper medical care. Although Hortencia works as a maid in the Castillo home—and has for 18 years—Pilar and Victoria have never met. But then a terrible accident finally brings the two women together. And once they meet, a surprising chain of events is set into motion.

The Castillo Family

The Castillo Family: Cástulo Guerra, Esperanza America and Ruth Livier.

In Destiny of Desire, playwright Karen Zacarías incorporates many of the tropes found in telenovelas, the primetime television programs that dominate the airwaves in Latin America. Characters fall in love at first sight and romance abounds, but the jealous tempers of others threaten to get in the way; many characters have deep, dark secrets—the kind that are impossible to keep forever—and some even have hidden identities; and the play’s complex, fast-paced plot includes shocking surprises at every turn. By indulging in and playing with the telenovela aesthetic, Destiny of Desire delights audiences with a bold and elegant sense of humor. At its core, though, the comedy is “an homage to the telenovela,” Zacarías says. “It’s not a satire. It’s not a parody.” After all, Destiny of Desire might grab the attention of an audience with its style and cheeky humor, but, in the end, the exciting story and the vivid characters make it impossible to look away—just like any good telenovela.

However, Destiny of Desire also challenges the genre it celebrates. It is easy for an audience to get lost in the emotional power of a telenovela, to feel totally immersed in the fiction on the screen (or, in Destiny’s case, on the stage). But Zacarías engages her audience outside of the play’s emotional through line by interrupting the action with conventions evocative of Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theatre,” a mid-20th century artistic movement that aimed to keep its viewers constantly aware of the real world around them. For Zacarías, the Brechtian moments in Destiny give the audience a chance to experience the play through an intellectual or political lens.

But no matter how audiences engage with Zacarías’ play—through its comedy, romance, commentary or all of the above—Destiny of Desire culminates as a joyful experience. It is also playfully defiant: a piece borne out of Zacarías’ observation that critics often compare works by Latina/o (increasingly called Latinx) playwrights to telenovelas when they want to dismiss them. In writing Destiny of Desire, Zacarías asks, “How would a telenovela work on the stage?”

And the answer is: wonderfully.

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