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Theatre Review: Native Gardens at Center REP Blooms with Laughs

By Randy McMullen

October 24, 2019


Many things have happened in the political landscape since Karen Zacarias wrote her culture—clash—driven comedic play Native Gardens in 2015, and almost all of them would seem to make the work more timely than ever.

After all, it's about an older white couple and a young Latin couple entangled in an ugly neighbor vs. neighbor battle that revolves around get this — a wall. (OK, in this case it's a crappy chain—link fence, but a metaphor's a metaphor, right?)

But while Native Gardens does deliver one very obvious Donald Trump's wall joke (it works beautifully) the play is more clever than cutting—edge. And it would be a mistake to come to this stage comedy, now playing at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center, expecting a show crackling with ripped—from—the—headlines urgency. If anything, it's more a play that uses timely topics to explore the timeless nature of the ways people create and nurture animosities as defense mechanisms. And rather than strike a political or moral chord, it explores how easy it is for any of us to resort to hurtful pettiness when our priorities are challenged. It's 90 minutes of topical comedy that gently invites us to search our souls when it's over.

As presented by Center Repertory Company, Native Gardens is an entertaining night of theater that makes the most out of Zacarias' crisp, funny dialogue, which often has the feel of a slightly edgy, much—better—than—average sitcom (her Book Club Play was performed by Center REP in 2015) . Assuredly helmed by Center REP artistic director Michael Butler, who has a real affinity for stage comedy, this production gets pretty much everything right, starting with an engaging cast of four primary actors who not only perform their parts well but seem to be having a blast the entire time.

Set in a tony, established Washington, D.C., neighborhood, Native Gardens revolves around two couples who are not as different as they might seem.

Frank (J. Michael Flynn) is a longtime federal employee whose true passion is the proper English garden he maintains (with a lot of pesticide) in his backyard, almost obsessively dreaming of winning a local horticultural society contest. His wife Virginia (Domenique Lozano) is an engineer at a male—dominated Defense Department contractor, used to being slighted by her co-workers.

Their brand new neighbors are Pablo (Raul Ramon Bencomo), a lawyer at a high—powered firm who yearns to make partner and prove he is more than a token Latin hire, and Tania (Livia Gomes Demarchi), a pregnant (as in any day now) Ph.D. candidate with her own garden dreams (sustainable native plants and NO pesticides) that could not be more different than Frank's. Each of the four is vibrant, likable and admirable in their own way, yet saddled with the sorts of agendas and prejudices we all carry.

Frank and Virginia assume their new neighbors are Mexicans (they're not) who must therefore like red wine and chocolate. Pablo and Tania view their new neighbors as pleasant relics of a bygone era ("It's like having the Dick Van Dyke Show right next door," says an adoring Tania).

But it's not long before the culture clashes begin, set in motion by the discovery that a fence between the couples' yards has been mislaid, denying Pablo and Tania 2 feet of property, and fueled by the fact that Frank's big garden contest and Pablo's apparently make—or—break barbecue party for his law firm take place in the contested back yard on the same weekend.

Yes, it's a pretty flimsy premise for a throw-down, but how many of us haven't gone to the mats over something that turns out, in retrospect, to be pretty silly? And of course, just when it seems a solution to the stand-off is at hand, a new log is added to the fire. Almost every conceivable social grievance — ageism, sexism, racism, white entitlement, reverse discrimination, bad gardeningism — gets trotted out at some point.

Besides the clever script and four appealing main characters by Zacarias (not to mention some nifty between-scenes dancing by Glenn Delos Santos, Justin P. Lopez and Carleena Manzi, all of whom play landscapers), a true star of the show is Sean Fanning's set, depicting two stately but aged residential homes and their busy back yards, with lawn furniture, a birdbath, old-fashioned barbecue set and that crappy chain-link fence. And props designer Alyssa Tryon gets, ahem, props for designing Frank's garden, which is so colorfully dazzling you'll be tempted to swipe a flower for your own garden (don't worry, we're pretty sure the pesticides he uses are fake).


Center REP presents hot-button comedy Native Gardens

By Evan Almdale

October 28, 2019


Native Gardens by award-wining playwright Karen Zacarias, currently performing through November 16 at the Lesher Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Drive) in Walnut Creek, CA., gives a whole new spin to the term 'border wars' much funnier and more hopeful than what is reported in the news these days! When a Latino professional couple move next door to an older, established D.C, couple, conflicts almost immediately arise over fences and flowers. But of course, it's more than that. A plethora of underlying cultural issues bubble to the surface as well. Zacarias handles the topics with humor, sensitivity, and relevancy. This hilarious hot button comedy not only puts a prize-worthy garden in jeopardy, but more importantly, allows a friendly neighborly rivalry to escalates into an all-out border dispute, challenging everyone's notions of race, privilege, class and good taste to evolve. Director Michael Butler brings out exceptional performances from the four leading actors: Raul Ramon Bencomo (as Pablo), Livia Gomes Demarchi (as Tania), J. Michael Flynn (as Frank), and Domenique Lozano (as Virginia). The supporting cast of Justin Lopez, Carleena Manzi, and Glenn Delos Santos (as the landscapers) are also outstanding. I actually recognized myself in one of the characters. I bet you'll see yourself too!


KAREN ZACARIAS' KEEN NEW PLAY 'NATIVE GARDENS' IS A COMEDY THAT SHAKES THE AMERICAN DREAM

By Vince Mediaa

October 23, 2019


WASH D.C. IS THE PERFECT HUB OF POLITICAL TENSION TO BUILD A WALL BETWEEN NEIGHBORS

The Margaret Lesher stage at Center Rep has been transformed into two Washington DC backyards to host the Hatfield and Mccoys of the Trump era. The smart new play NATIVE GARDENS is now on stage at CenterRep in Walnut Creek through November 16th. This comedy by Latinx playwright Karen Zacarias is an upbeat workout of the American Dream. Zacarias says writing a comedy is harder than drama "In this political climate now, we're all looking for a reason to laugh. This play does that it shows that despite our differences, we're part of a great community."

Directed by the clever Michael Butler who cast a keen company of four actors who turn up the heat at this Garden dispute. Butler says Zacarias investigates humor "she writes NATIVE GARDENS a comedy which quickly goes on to be one of the Top Ten Most Produced Plays in America, she hit a nerve." The Garden in this story of two families is a dandelion of weeds a time bomb; it's cheerful and sunny on the surface, but dig deep and you'll discover the dirt of our current times.

The setting is an upscale neighborhood famous for its location to our Government's White House and hub of politics. A stately Washington neighborhood where the story is set with an elite list of residents including congressmen and lawyers. The conflict is based on a clash of cultures, values, outlooks, and political issues, all heightened by status conscious neighbors in a sought after place to live. The plot is simple, best summed up with four words: New neighbors, old neighborhood. An up—and—coming young couple, the Del Valles, take possession of a fixer—upper. Pablo is a driven new lawyer, and Tania is a very pregnant Ph.D. candidate in anthropology working on her dissertation.

The enthusiastic Raul Ramon Bencomo and the terrific Livia Gomes Demarchi play the new home owners. The Del Valles come from two different backgrounds, yet they are both Hispanic and feel constant discrimination pressing and threating their dreams. Next door meet Frank and Virginia, an older couple on the brink of retirement, are white establishment Republicans, kindly but entitled. They obsess over their good looking house and backyard, especially former government worker, Frank. Played by the ideal J Michael Flynn he is so busy smelling the roses in his retirement he turns gardening into a stressful competitive sport. Virginia, played by local favorite Domenique Lozano is an engineer working for a defense contractor. She has qualities that helped her to succeed in a male-dominated career; she wears the pants in the family.

The Butleys initially welcome the Del Valles to the neighborhood with a bottle of good wine and a box of fine chocolates, a friendship they try to revisit throughout the two act play. Soon a squabble between the two couples develops over a disputed property line and class. "But you are Mexican-American aren't you?" Frank asks and Tania asks "Do you introduce yourself as English‐American?" she continues; "My family has been in the same region for over two hundred years, where I am from was originally part of Mexico, then it became part of the United States. We never immigrated. Yet because of how I look, my nationality is always in question." The property line becomes a feud that includes a chainsaw, a chained protest, and the removal of the chain link fence that started it all. While words, flowers, and weeds fly, Director Butler has added an excellent team of gardeners/scene changers to lighten up Sean Fanning's amazing, authentic set.

The energized Justin Lopez, Carleena Manzi, Carleena Manzi and Glenn Delos Santos dance to Carlos Vives "Hoy Tengo Tiempo" as they build the fence, choreographed by the sizzling, Kevin Grulwell. As they dance to the lively Bomba Estereo "So Yo" during scene transitions while preparing the "wall" and counting down to the final showdown. The tempo is ebullient and the mood infectiously danceable. The highlight of the yard fight is Zacarias' marvelous dialog and quick comebacks and sitcom style word battle.

Set designer Sean Fanning is a Walnut Creek native who has gone on to design professionally some amazing work; his set is a show stealer. The authentic setting including a life size oak tree is superb, and Wen‐Ling Liao's lighting design with rich blues, the outdoor feel is stunning. Costumes by Michael A Berg reflect the high end look for the Butley's and the urban class of the Del Valle's. Stage Manager Anastasia O Wirth kept the three member fence builders prop heavy as they dance the fence posts in place. Properties Designer Alyssa Tryon has a huge task of keeping the flowers in bloom and the garden chairs flying. Sound Designer James Goode pumps the Latin soundtrack that cheers on the dance team.

NATIVE GARDENS offers a refreshing take on current events with an optimistic message that might be a bit predictable but well staged. It is a reminder that while good fences make good neighbors, building a wall only serves to strengthen fear and separation. The answer maybe to agree on a shared vision, we can plant the seeds for a new American Dream and cultivate a better future for us all. Next up at CenterRep is their annual production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL that opens Dec 12th. In 2020 IN THE HEIGHTS comes to the Walnut Creek Stage May 22. In the meantime, don't miss the feud of the fall NATIVE GARDENS and bring your own chainsaw.



Curtain Calls: Set Steals Show; Actors also do fine job of respective roles in comedic social commentary

By Sally Hogarty

October 28, 2019


They say "good fences make good neighbors," and that may be true if those neighbors can decide exactly where that fence should go. Such is the conundrum in Center Repertory Company's current production of "Native Gardens."

New neighbors Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Raul Ramon Bencomo and Livia Gomes Demarchi) decide to plant a native garden in their rundown backyard. Thrilled that the neighboring yard will no longer be an eyesore, longtime residents Frank and Virginia Butley (Michael Flynn and Domenique Lozano) change their tune when the Del Valles' surveyor (Miranda Ketchum) discovers the old fence is in the wrong place. The new fence, however, would take two feet of the Butleys' backyard, including Frank's prize‐winning garden.

Director Michael Butler says playwright Karen Zacarias got the idea for the play after attending a party where people were comparing stories about their neighbors. She was struck by the passion and absurdity of fights about property and taste and how quickly they could escalate.

The resulting "Native Gardens" adds political views, unacknowledged prejudices and more along with a hefty dose of humor in the form of the landscapers. These music‐loving workers (Glenn Delos Santos, Justin P. Lopez and Carlenna Manzi) do much more than whistle while they work. They dance in and out to a mesmerizing Latin beat, adding a nice break from the angst between the neighbors. Zacarias includes many nice touches, including conversations between the couples happening simultaneously in their respective yards.

While everyone does a fine job in their respective roles, the real star is the set. Sean Fanning has outdone himself in creating the elaborate old brick Georgetown homes with a lush, colorful garden for one yard and a towering, stately oak tree for the other. "Native Gardens" continues through Nov. 16 at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr. Call 925-943-SHOW or go to lesherartscenter.org for tickets or more details.