By Jason and Alisha Hagey; Front Row Reviewers
Pioneer Theatre Company’s latest production, Native Gardens, is a delightful and meaningful message needed today and necessary for the Salt Lake City community. The play centers around a conflict between two neighboring couples over a property line. While imbued with a comedic tone, the play adeptly explores complex issues of race, class, and privilege. The work offers a thought-provoking commentary on these topical themes while providing humor and entertainment to the audience. The play is a skillful blend of lightheartedness and meaningful social commentary. Ultimately, it is a beautifully rendered allegory of our current socio-political era and a poignant reminder of what it means to be a good person.
Karen Zacarías (Playwright) must have been eavesdropping on many family gatherings, scribbling down conversations, argument points, and ideas with feverish delight because she has captured the quintessential discussions heard around offices and kitchen tables for the last decade. The situation itself came from real-life experiences. At a dinner party, friends of Zacarías suggested she write a play about a neighborly dispute. Listening to their stories of neighbor disagreements, she realized they all came down to property, taste, class, and culture. Thus, the notion sprung to life that would grow to become Native Gardens. Zacarías builds a simple world with exuberant complexity and layers of personality. She is funny, witty, intelligent, and challenging. Native Gardens will make you think as much as it makes you laugh.
Previously, for PTC, Timothy Douglas (Director) brought Clybourne Park and Fences to life. Both are about race relations and neighborhoods and neighbors, but that’s where the comparisons stop. In the plays mentioned above, Douglas had a deft hand at telling these somber stories. He hasn’t lost his touch in Native Gardens. Douglas is still adept, but this comic turn about similar subjects is brilliant and boisterous. The penetrating subjects are still palpable and essential, but instead of starkly reflecting our culture, Douglas uses the text as a playful mirror of us, thus making the lessons learned a little less harsh and much more fun.
I found so much relatable about Katya Collazo (Tania Del Valle). Perhaps it stems from the fact that I have moved to a location purely for the trees (her hugging the oak was so familiar), or that I am very into the native gardening scene (I have had that heated horticultural dispute. For any locals, I highly recommend the Conservation Garden Park in West Jordan and the related Utah State University classes), Collazo crafts real passion into her character. She also had a raw honesty when admitting that her character, Tania, can make mistakes (it caused me to reflect on my “passionately rational” approach to my preferences).
Kelly Coffield Park (Virginia Butley) has the best lines in the play. Her delivery is spot on, her timing is hilarious, and she does so with exceptional nuance and absolute believability. There is nothing in her performance that feels forced or mocking. Instead, Park embodies the well-meaning “boomer” next door who tries to say and do all the right things but ends up the epitome of culturally offensive malapropisms. Park is perfect.
No stranger to the Utah stage, Tito Livas (Pablo Del Valle) is always magnificent. He is as much a physical actor as he is a vocal one. When he performs, his whole body becomes involved, thus making him a vibrant cast member. Livas commands the stage, and his mannerisms are evocative and purposeful. Livas is a galvanizing force that brings the whole production together.
Michael Kostroff (Frank Butley) is seasoned; he’s a theatre, film, and television veteran, and it shows. His characterization is a flawless blend of intelligence and tantrums. At turns, he is precocious and cheerful, then petulant and churlish. Kostroff forms Frank into a well-rounded, even profound, human being. Kostroff’s Frank is relatable and loveable.
I find myself tickled over small details. Lex Liang (Costume Designer) gives us these in abundance. He weaves rich tapestries of color and texture. My favorite has to be the extended belly button for Callazo. Liang creates a charm for each of the characters. Whether in how Kostroff wears his pants or the cut of the suit for Livas (gorgeous), it all feels alive, comfortable, and nuanced.
Not caught in the weeds (sorry, the play is so full of puns that I can’t help myself), Jo Winiarski (Scenic Designer) invents a suburban playground. Whether it is in the dichotomy of the architecture of the two homes (wouldn’t you think the English garden would want to be with a brick edifice; love the switch there) or their subsequent yards, there is a visual feast for the audience and actors.
Peter Maradudin’s (Lighting Designer) lighting is fantastic, especially around transitions. It might be a funny point to focus on, but transition lighting is crucial. Maradudin didn’t just light up certain parts of the stage to prevent a blackout. He uses transitional lighting where, even in silhouette, the action on stage adds to the story. In a similar vein, Bryce Robinette (Sound Design) gives us everything we need for place and time of day without ever calling attention to the sound itself. It was seamless.
By the end of the evening, boundaries change, more variety brings harmony, cultural (and horticultural) xenophobia is addressed, and no one loses. It’s rare to have a piece that, on the surface, feels like a great evening of comedy with some heavy didacticism thrown in to incite tension. But when you let the text and performance sit awhile longer, it opens up and blossoms into a great discussion. The production pays careful attention to details. Every bit of writing, directing, design, and performance is nuanced and rich, each layer adding more depth. Native Gardens is a timely and timeless reminder that we can all be good neighbors when fences come down.
Native Gardens runtime lasts approximately 90 minutes without an intermission
Pioneer Theatre Company presents Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías
Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S 1400 E, Salt Lake City, UT, 84112
January 12 – 27, 2024
Tickets: $42 – $53 in advance; $5 more when purchased on day of show
Students K – 12 or ages 5-18 are half-price Monday – Thursday
Monday – Thursday, 7:00 PM
Friday & Saturday, 7:30 PM
Saturday, 2:00 PM
ASL-interpreted performance: Saturday, January 27, 2024, 2:00 PM
Box Office: 801-581-6961
Open 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Monday – Friday
PTC Show Listing: Native Gardens
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2024 marks the 45th year of the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre Loge Gallery. During the run of Native Gardens, the gallery will feature the work of local artists Ben Behunin, Cory C. Dangerfield, and Thomas Boden. Their respective works—ranging from pottery and painting to photography—will be made for sale through the PTC Box Office.
LANGUAGE: Mild adult language
VIOLENCE: Characters in a verbal conflict express themselves physically by destroying and threatening to destroy each other’s property.
FOR WHICH AUDIENCES?: Contains some adult themes and arguments, pregnancy/childbirth, microaggressions, and discussion of racism. If Native Gardens were to be made into a film, it would likely be PG-13.