What does it mean to be a good neighbor? When is it important to compromise, and at what cost?
Native Gardens asks these questions and more. Victory Gardens chose a fascinating moment in our political climate to produce a play that pointedly asks us to question our own behavior when it comes to our neighbors – both locally, and on a global scale.
Victory Gardens presents Native Gardens
Written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Marti Lyons, Native Gardens follows two couples – Frank and Virginia Butley (Patrick Clear and Janet Ulrich Brooks), and Pablo and Tania del Valle (Gabriel Ruiz and Paloma Nozicka). When the del Valles move next-door to the Butleys, all at first seems perfect. Tania and Pablo are thrilled about their new home and neighborhood, and cannot wait to get started on building a new garden. However, when the couple finds that their property line actually extends into the Butley yard, a war ensues.
How do we define ownership of property? If we took something without knowing, is it still wrong? Zacarias asks us to question our values as we watch the fight grow. Over the course of the play a simple argument over a property line becomes far more extreme, and begins to call into question ideas of race and class that send the battle into chaos.
Zacarias’ script is fast-paced and witty, and elicited laughter from the audience throughout the production. At numerous points, audience members even clapped along with the characters’ choices – as decisions became more extreme, the laughter and applause only increased.
While Zacarias makes the politics of the piece a little pointed and “in-your-face” at times, this also worked to the play’s advantage. A battle over a property line reaches new heights, and in heavily implying close connections to a fight over a “border” in our current political climate, Zacarias asks her audience to draw the parallels themselves. In doing so, the comedy may become a little darker, but also all the more relevant.
A Stunning Design
Helmed by Lyons, the design team created an aesthetically striking stage – starting with the set. Set Designer William Boles transformed the intimate space of Victory Gardens into the backyards of the two neighbors. Full of precise detail, we saw the sharp contrast between the beautiful, carefully sculpted garden and home of the Butleys compared to the fixer-upper that Pablo and Tania acquired.
With the help of Lighting Deisgner Keith Parham, Lyons creatively uses the space to enhance the comedy. One moment in particular involves both couples on stage, debating about how they are to deal with the other in the property battle. While the couples have different interests and backgrounds, they also share quite a few similarities, and Lyons highlights this connection in the particular scene through parallel staging. Each time one of the characters moves on one side of the fence, a character on the other side would do the same movement, whether this was a walk downstage or perching on a chair. Though the couples are at war, in the end, they want the same thing – respect, and a home of which they can be proud. The parallel staging is hilarious, and Parham utilizes lighting to help direct the audience towards whichever couple requires focus in a given moment.
The work of Sound Designer Mikhail Fiksel helped Lyons enhance the transitions in the play, making them an important part of the storytelling. During these moments, we might see one Frank tending to his lawn to the amusing sound of a jaunty tune, or Tania and Pablo scheming to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” The sound is creative and fun, and helps increase the enjoyment of the overall production.
This four-person ensemble is top-notch, and successfully carries this fast-paced story from moment to moment with ease, showcasing wonderful stage chemistry and spot-on comedic timing.
While this is a battle between two couples, one of the strongest elements of this ensemble is that each character invites the audience to sympathize with their cause. I found myself rooting for each couple at various moments, and in the end, I was unsure of which side I wanted to see win.
Patrick Clear creates a loveable character in his Frank Butley. Frank just finds pure enjoyment in tending to his garden, and Clear’s journey is a joy to watch unfold. When he finds that the property battle could get in the way of his deep desire to win a garden competition, the puppy dog look that he showcased elicited a verbal “aww” from the audience.
In contrast, Janet Ulrich Brooks’ Virginia Butley is strong and sharp, which brings a different, witty humor to the Butley side of the fence. Brooks’ stage presence commands the stage, and she masterfully highlights the complexities of her character. While she is a strong feminist, she also loves her husband, and rushes to his aid when he needs her most.
Nozicka and Ruiz showcase lovely chemistry in their marriage, and as well as an excellent ability to play off each other in the comedy. While Pablo is a tough lawyer, he also easily bends at the will of his wife, and these two actors bring that power balance to life in their portrayals.
Witty and fun, Native Gardens is a must-see event. It takes a great play to invite the audience into a standing ovation before it even officially reaches its end, and this four-person ensemble did just that.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through July 2, 2017
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 3:00pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Run Time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Victory Gardens Theater
2433 North Lincoln Avenue
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.