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THEATER REVIEW Destiny of Desire
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Karen Zacarias. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $20-$75. Runs through: April 16

Karen Zacarias' homage to the world of telenovelas delivers more fun than anyone has a right to expect from the Latinx author of solemn feminist dramas. Audience members not yet counted among the genre's two billion devotees, but who have encountered the fiction of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Georgette Heyer and John Fowler will have no problem acclimating to the intricate narrative arc of this internationally popular entertainment. Also helpful is a passing familiarity with PBS miniseries, prime-time soap operas, serial comic strips or Disney fairy tales.

Our story begins on a rainy Mexican night 20 years ago, when two girls were born at Bellarica Municipal Hospital—one, the sickly child of wealthy casino-owner Armando Castillo and gold-digger wife Fabiola; and the other, the hearty daughter of poor farmers Ernesto and Hortencia del Rio. Fearing the wrath of her husband, Fabiola bribes Dr. Mendoza to switch the infants.

From this unlikely premise, the action then jumps to the present, when we meet wholesome bluestocking Pilar Castillo and delicate idealistic Victoria del Rio, as they are now called, as well as the sons—one estranged, one devoted—of the corrupt fathers Castillo and Mendoza. Guided by all-seeing hospital director Sor Sonia, we watch as their adventures take them through multiple mistaken identities, at-first-sight romances, near-homicides, emotionally fraught treks through the Sonoran desert, comatose seizures, emergency heart-transplants, girl-on-girl smoochies and spontaneous bursts of song precipitated by the usual reasons that characters in plays do this.

What prevents this tangled web from succumbing to hyperkinetic chaos is partly Zacarias' framing device of a production company in an empty theater taping the telenovela in progress—a conceit begetting balletic scene-changes, a live-piano sound track and silent movie-styled title cards. The "novela" factor also makes for pop-up breaks in the action for commentary on the social issues raised by the extravagant events depicted.

None of this would matter, though, without the ensemble directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela and led by Ella Saldana North and Esperanza America as the long-lost "kissing cousins" retaining an unswerving grip on a text requiring them to shriek, roar and keen with an operatic fervor demanding the physical and vocal stamina of steeplechase-race horses. Be prepared to leave the theater so energized that you may want to bypass the elevator and instead bolt the stairs in the parking garage.

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