“Destiny of Desire” wants to be your guilty pleasure. Her eyes flutter and her bosom heaves, but you resist even though you don’t yet recognize the horrible truth — ay, caramba, she’s your cousin! You can’t think; you’re laughing and reeling — and then the bodice rips.
If this frothy new comedy (plus a few songs and a stage-filling dance or two) lays it on extra thick at Arena Stage, it is because playwright Karen Zacarias is diving headfirst into the sudsy world of telenovelas. Those melodramatic TV serials are among the world’s most popular story forms, and Zacarias happily sends up the scandalous, heavy-lidded excesses in her breathlessly titled “Destiny of Desire,” directed with seductive flair by Jose Luis Valenzuela.
The silky, fur-trimmed costumes for the wicked Fabiola Castillo could spark a flashy fashion show by themselves, but then the production — Arena’s first entry in the city’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival — is saturated with a too-much-ness that is a large part of the joke. When Fabiola’s handsome stepson Sebastian expresses his heartache in a song (sung in Spanish), actor Nicholas Rodriguez’s voice not only drips with emotion as he holds notes till they weep — his voice quavers and his lip quivers. It is over the top by a juicy inch or three.
The plot is so ludicrously twisted that if it were food it wouldn’t be a pretzel; it would be, if you will forgive the culture-hopping, a plate of spaghetti. On a dark and stormy night, two babies are born in a Mexican hospital — one rich, one poor. The rich mother is Fabiola, played with a wonderfully wry inventory of “look at me” strategies by Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey. When Fabiola learns that her infant, Victoria, is sickly, she nabs the healthy poor girl, Pilar.
Flash forward until the girls are grown up and coping with everything from a coming out party to a sudden shooting that sends the poor mother, Hortencia del Rio, to jail. Mistaken identities and long-suppressed secrets lead to an inevitable pileup of reversals and shocks.
They also lead to a story that gets stuck overexplaining for much of its 2
“Destiny” is meta-theatrical, meaning we see the actors putting on this stage show, handling spotlights and even seething in silent rivalry about roles. That generates a neat surprise about how the story’s direction changes mischievously on the fly.
Zacarias also adds deadpan factoids intoned into microphones — statistics and statements gauged to add depth to the shenanigans. Some of these are smart punch lines, while others briefly sober things up: “The average cost of raising a child in the United States from birth to 18 years of age is over $245,000,” an actor says flatly as the babies are swapped in the hospital. These inserted tidbits jazz up a windiness that begins to plague the super-heavy plotting even before intermission.
Still, “Destiny” is zesty fun as you get to know it. Fernandez-Coffey’s scheming Fabiola is a lampoon trophy wife flaunting impossibly high-end getups that must have been tremendous fun for costume designer Julie Weiss to create. The switched daughters Victoria (Elia Saldana) and Pilar (Esperanza America) are often skimpily clad, and Rodriguez’s strapping Sebastian always seems to be peeling his shirt off. Pablo Santiago’s lights amusingly heighten the melodrama on Francois-Pierre Couture’s stage-exposing design, but it is the costume parade for these inflated characters that takes the cake, from Fabiola’s scarlet jodhpur ensemble to a swanky collection of robes and dressing gowns.
The acting is comically savvy and hyper-passionate, goaded to emotional overload by Zacarias’s florid dialogue and ominous underscoring from onstage pianist Rosino Serrano (the show’s composer and music coordinator). Particularly notable among the broadly drawn types, along with Fernandez-Coffey’s impeccably measured Fabiola, are Castulo Guerra’s elegant and edgy turn as the rich Armando Castillo and Rayanne Gonzales’s earthy, splendidly funny Hortencia. The show is hardly a musical, yet it gains tremendously from the few songs and the coming-out-of-nowhere dance numbers choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming.
Can you resist? The head says yes: The combination of all-out hijinks and a knowing tone is hard to sustain. But Zacarias’s script flickers with wisdom and wit that even includes a sharp one-liner puncturing Donald Trump. And the come-on of Valenzuela’s fevered production is a temptation to reckon with.
By Karen Zacarias. Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela. Sound design, John Zalewski. With Marian Licha, Carlos Gomez, Oscar Ceville and Fidel Gomez. About 21/2 hours. Through Oct. 18 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $40-$90, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.