TheatreSquared built a reputation as an intimate theater experience. That status was earned in its old home indie Nadine Baum Studios. You were often so close to the action that you had to tread carefully while walking in to avoid stepping on some of the scenic elements.
In part because of this intimacy, T2 succeeded beyond any founding member’s original dream and celebrated a move to a purpose-built, dedicated home for theater across the street from its old home. The new $34 million facility opened in August.
The new building houses two distinct theaters – the larger West Theatre and the smaller Spring Theatre. The larger space hosted the first show – “Shakespeare in Love.” And the Spring Theatre had already hosted a workshop production, but it was Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” that had the honor of being the first full-production show in this smaller space. The production opened Wednesday (Oct. 2) for a pair of previews before officially opening Friday (Oct. 4), which is when I watched the show.
What: “Native Gardens”
When: Every Tuesday through Sunday until Nov. 10
Where: TheatreSquared’s new home at 447 W. Spring St., Fayetteville
Cost: $17-$49; a limited number of $10 tickets are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
Returns are far from final, and a one-play sample size cannot speak for what’s to come later. But for “Native Gardens,” we are somehow even closer than ever before. Patrons in the front row of seats couldn’t have been more than 5 feet from some of the on-stage action, and TheatreSquared staff members gave a pre-show warning about being careful in the aisles because of the activity there. Cast members came in from those aisles with frequency, and we were right on top of this movement. Two large houses loom over the stage area, and the aesthetic is impressive – and impressively close.
For a show that is nominally about a garden, it was a far from peaceful affair. “Native Gardens” is set in the gentrifying Georgetown district of Washington, D.C. At the surface level, the show is about the rift caused when a young couple moves next door to an older couple long established in the neighborhood. The younger couple, the Del Valle family, hopes to replace an old fence on the property line. Easy enough, right? Except a survey of the land and an assessment of the real estate records show that the existing fence is about two feet off the actual property line, giving the older couple, the Butley family, more backyard than they are entitled to have.
Maybe that wouldn’t be a problem, but Frank Butley’s almost-prize-winning garden is firmly rooted on what should be the Del Valle family property. In an attempt to get things right, things go wrong. Decorative rocks are thrown at each other. Leaves are dumped on an otherwise freshly manicured lawn. Insults are lobbed back and forth as well. The fight always runs into absurdist territory – this is a comedy, after all, and there are several laugh-out-loud lines.
But some of the underlying issues at stake in the show are very real, and very timely. “Native Gardens” isn’t just about new versus old, or about one interpretation of a property line versus another. It also isn’t just about the “native garden” in question. Frank Butley (played by frequent TheatreSquared contributor Bill Rogers) has planted a series of exotics in the backyard. Tania Del Valle (played by Marissa Castillo) wants to return her backyard to a more native approach.
What the characters are dealing with in “Native Gardens” exceeds all of those superficial dividing lines. We are asked to examine foreign versus native, republican versus democrat, white versus non-white, conservative versus progressive. The central premise of the show examines what happens when Latinx people come to take land that white Americans believe to be their own. You can see the author’s juxtaposition there, and Frank Butley outright calls what’s happening a “border war.” For added effect, Hispanic workers prepping the Del Valle’s backyard carry a radio with them to ease the workday. And one of the soundbites from the radio is a news segment that discusses President Donald Trump’s plans for a physical barrier at our southern border. The news clip is quickly dismissed. But you understand the microcosm playing out in front of the audience has big stakes, and not just those the surveyor used to establish the proposed property line.
The exchanges between these neighboring clans alternate between friendly and adversarial, and we’re once again reminded of the duality of things. The Butleys are nice, nearly retired people who bring their neighbors nice wine. Virginia (played by Lauren Halyard) in particular possesses a combination of sweetness and menace that you almost can’t believe comes from the same person but that we see all the time. As a result, the Butleys are also the type that call in governmental favors to halt construction. The Del Valles are working hard to improve their place in life, and they are also the type who would snag 80 square feet of land for the idea of making a profit.
The play traffics in some of the “gotchaism” that summarizes our way of communicating with each other, particularly online. You said this? Aha! That means you’re a … (insert the kind person you think is terrible here)! And the barbs hit hard – hard enough that a woman sitting in front of me ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed loudly when some of the insults were thrown. The dialogue made me cringe sometimes because it felt mean.
But the dialogue also crackles because it carries a level of authenticity. This is how we fight with each other – both over border fences and border walls. This authenticity runs deep in the show. For instance, Pedro Del Valle (played by Stephen L. Reyes) is said to be from Santiago, Chile. My wife, who lived in Chile for a year, has told me a few of the Chilean colloquialisms that make that country’s interpretation of Spanish unique. I caught Pedro saying one of the cruder ones, and I suspect I would have heard more if I had a better understanding of the language and its quirks. The point is that there’s a depth of reality at work here that really pushes “Native Gardens.”
The characters are pushed to the brink by the feud. A final push at the end yields the resolutions that were so hard to come by in the brinksmanship that carries the drama and comedy of the show. I will say that for a show about the deep divides in our country, the end results are swift, even hopeful. Perhaps if the Del Valles and the Butleys can mend their fences, we can as well.