To those of us who were not raised with the tradition of the telenovela, the resounding popularity of this Latin American entertainment may seem somewhat puzzling, with its extravagantly-plotted stories, improbable characters and tempestuous performance styles. Like its American cousin, the soap opera, the telenovela often relies on an unlikely blend of romance and mystery (and a generous portion of outrageous humor) to weave its spell on the viewer, bringing to the small screen mesmerizing tales of historical intrigue, star-crossed affairs of the heart, comic misadventures and even portraits of teen-aged pop bands (to lure young viewers into the telenovela tradition). Perhaps surprisingly, these fanciful stories are often laced with sociopolitical commentary, dealing with such contemporary issues as family planning, drug use and addiction, and struggles with poverty and class consciousness. In the past three decades, the popularity of the telenovela has mushroomed, spreading from Latin American and Spanish cultures to Europe, Asia and even the Arab world, where families in Morocco or Algeria or Egypt often watch their favorite telenovelas together.
It is this enticing genre that playwright Karen Zacarías has chosen to explore in her delightfully wise new play, Destiny of Desire. First seen two seasons ago at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, Destiny both embraces and pokes satiric fun at the extravagances of the telenovela tradition, mixing well-known archetypes (the wealthy patriarch, the earnest-but-mysterious handsome suitor, the beautiful but impoverished young woman dreaming of a better life) in an improbably comic study of the clashes between the haves and have-nots. But among the outlandish situations that are at the heart of the genre’s popularity is Zacarías’ knowing commentary about the very real issues facing contemporary life: the evolving roles of women in the Latin American world, the increasingly complex challenges of race, the ideological differences among classes and the issues confronting each of the characters in a society quickly transforming around them. The result is a sophisticated blend of fantasy and the real world, of romantic comedy laced with social insight.
Co-produced with South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California (where it received cheers from audiences and critics alike), Destiny of Desire is unlike any other play I’ve encountered. If you’re a telenovela fan, you’ll delight at the plot twists and turns and outlandish characters that are an essential part of the genre’s allure; if you’ve never taken part in this tradition, I think you’ll be charmed by Zacarías’ wit, ingenuity and sobering observations into the issues that confront us today. Either way, I predict that you’ll be seduced by the unique pleasures of the telenovela—as translated to the stage by one of our most gifted writers.
Buy tickets and learn more about Destiny of Desire. Tickets start at just $20!