“The trees that are slow to grow,” France’s Jean-Baptiste Poquelin once said, “bear the best fruit.” His meaning is obvious, and when Moliere (his stage name) is added to the mix, the theory is all the more appropriate.
Allow art to simmer on its own terms, the legendary 17th-century comic playwright-actor says. The process is crucial to the best result.
In that spirit, Herbert Siguenza let his current Manifest Destinitis marinate 168 years — the time between the play’s setting and its current run at San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep’s resident playwright and a founder of Hispanic performance group Culture Clash has scripted an adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid — both plays center on hypochondriac Argan (Don Aragon here), who wants his daughter to marry a doctor so he can save on medical bills; problem is, she’s in love with somebody else and enlists her household in a plot to save the relationship.
True to Molierean form, Siguenza and director Sam Woodhouse give us lots of rapid-fire looks at lots of rapid-fire people and situations, including an enormous land-grab scheme, a lesbian conclave and a shaky insurance fraud ploy. It’s all in the name of love, of course — meanwhile (and I mean this in the best and most positive sense), if you like your love slathered with topheavy sketchery and style over substance, this is the show for you.
It’s 1848, and the United States is on the brink of the Mexican Cession, which placed virtually all our present-day Southwest into American hands following the Mexican-American War — but Don Aragon (Mark Pinter), a Mexican born in the area that would soon become California, isn’t having it. His gut is leaking, his head’s in a vise and he has a mean case of “vaginitis,” leading doctors to diagnose him with manifest destinits, an abject dread of losing everything he’s lived and worked for.
The immigrant gringos and their smash-and-grab tactics were on their way, and Mexican life would never be the same.
Accordingly, the fact that daughter Angelica loves American Charlie Sutter is the don’s last straw. Saddled with a house worth of medical bills, he arranges a marriage between Angie and a young Spanish doctor of his choosing, much to Angie’s dismay. Enter Tonia, Aragon’s Indian hired help, who’ll set things right with high farce at her side. American exceptionalism, it turns out, is a myth, as our touted manifest destiny wasn’t ours to begin with.
People move through Don Aragon’s hacienda at breakneck speed, and just about everybody has an agenda. Dr. Burgos (Richard Trujillo) is all too happy to take his patient’s money; wife Belen Aragon (Roxane Carrasco) can’t wait to sink her claws into hub’s insurance settlement; and Robert Mayo (John Padilla) can’t wait to sink his claws into Belen. Lovestruck Angelica (Jennifer Paredes), spacey Sutter (Jacob Caltrider) and the irrepressible Tonia (Siguenza) are about the only blameless folks of the lot — their incessant, stylistic clowning (alongside the references to area locales and the upcoming national election) is thus made to order, as the opportunists around them are out-over the topped.
Still, there’s often too much overkill at play. There isn’t a single character that isn’t introduced frontally, leaving the gaping misimpression that each role is designed on a par with the next. Speeches are shrill and overly cadenced, allowing an audience little time to adjust for subtext. Moliere staked his bread and butter on such style, and Siguenza and Woodhouse have certainly captured the idea — but so much madcap is dangerous amid centuries of shifting audience tastes (you know how daft I am about ma cherie France, and even so, I don’t always care for Moliere when his stuff is done the way he intended, like here).
But Siguenza’s force-of-nature Tonia is someone you’d like to have as a neighbor — which is to say she’s an absolute delight. Woodhouse deftly uses the set as a character tool in his plans for her, and designer Sean Fanning accommodates nicely. Costumer Jennifer Brawn Gittings has ample opportunity to show a flare for color, while Lonnie Alcaraz’s lights and Bruno Louchouarn’s sound speak each other’s tongue. Overall, this is one of the best tech-stage collaborations I’ve seen in a while.
Meanwhile, the substance beneath Siguenza’s writing is decidedly well-taken.
“American exceptionalism” is one of the most unfortunate catch-phrases of our time, roundly unfair in its expectations. Americans are not and never have been any more or less exceptional than the Mexicans or the Finns or the Namibians or the Chinese or even the Venusians; they and any number of peoples simply occupy a conspicuous place in a world that’s having a monstrous time getting its head around itself. The theater is the living repository of the stories that define that — and amid its unabashed eye for ridiculousness, Manifest Destinitis offers a look at the human household through another door.
Now, the French…
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Sept. 21. Manifest Destinitis runs through Oct. 9 at the Lyceum Theatres’ Space venue at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. $46-$67; discounts available. 619-544-1000, sdrep.org.