Robrt Pela: Review Of 'Native Gardens' From The Arizona Theater Company

Published: Thursday, October 18, 2018 - 8:45am
Updated: Friday, October 19, 2018 - 12:12pm
Herberger Theater
"Native Gardens" produced by the Arizona Theatre Company.

These days, many of us are on the prowl for amusing distractions.

Videos of frolicking baby goats, the final season of a favorite sitcom, the umpteenth remake of "A Star is Born" — all are here to take our minds, as it were, off our feet. Karen Zacarias’s "Native Gardens," playing now at the Herberger, is another pleasant diversion — and not much more.

This lightly comic peek into various -isms offers little in the way of fresh commentary, though it’s expertly crafted by a fine cast.

Zacarias’s story has a beard a mile long. Its conflict is laid out neatly and quite early: A friendly young Latino couple moves into a big city rowhouse. Next door lives an older, affluent white couple, one half of that couple is a master gardener. Early on, it’s discovered that the nice rich white people have been gardening on land they thought was their own — and, well, a fourth grader can likely figure out the rest.

Because each of its characters is an archetype, rather than a fully-formed person, it’s hard to sympathize with the good guys or object to the baddies. Zacarias cleverly shifts that dynamic throughout, giving her play a plot arc of sorts. Yet each of the four remains a supporting player in their own lives, sounding boards for today’s social problems and opinions.

As we’ve seen before on this same stage, the actors appear to have been fed great vats of black coffee and told to bellow all their lines, even — or perhaps especially — when their characters aren’t angry about anything. There’s a lot of indicating, too; it’s possible that the director doesn’t trust us to follow this slight story without heaps of frenetic gesturing.

Yet even with the choreographed emotions, Arlene Chico-Lugo’s performance as a put-upon and very pregnant grad student is a fine, if not especially subtle, one. Bill Geisslinger is excellent as a passionate gardener and otherwise colorless fellow. He is eminently watchable even as this under-nuanced, Central Casting Republican retiree. Carey Wong has created a simple and quite attractive set design whose windows and doorways help action that’s overburdened with entrances and exits.

Theatergoers looking for a nice diversion will enjoy the play's comic setups and some nice, if noisy, acting. And prognosticators will enjoy being right about each and every one of their guesses regarding what will happen next. Because "Native Gardens" does, right up until curtain, when, well, I really do want you to go see this play, so I’ll just leave that right here.

"Native Gardens" continues through Oct. 21 at the Herberger Theater in Phoenix.

Robrt Pela’s reviews appear in the Phoenix New Times.

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