Species Native to California
Reviewed by Gray Palmer
IAMA Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre
Through June 11
Prompted by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Dorothy Fortenberry’s new play, Species Native to California, strikes several notes that may ring — if you’re listening — with vibrations from the night outside Atwater Village Theatre, the night of our present darkness. You may hear overtones in two registers.
There’s the political register — these Russian influences! Or, let’s say (with a straight face), panic about the other: invasive species are taking over the local habitat! Choking the garden of democratic aspiration! Like kudzu, like bamboo, like… Johnsongrass…!
We’re accustomed to seeing Chekhov’s plays as work filled with revolutionary premonition. And in my opinion, the LA theater audience shares the position, in a slant way, of the bewildered aristocratic liberal of 1904. Our American night does resemble that Russian night — as a dangerously frozen interregnum and a time of monsters.
Then there’s the literary register — again, Russian influences! How does one identify the deceptive, subtle-but-grotesque social forms that invade at a dangerous time? Lacking an adequate political analysis, or refusing one, we naturally rely on kinds of aesthetic judgement. Here, the telling quality is the scent of “the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever…” Children and animals are likely to spot versions of it quickly.
As does young Zo in Species Native to California. Zo (the brilliant Melissa Stephens) is passionate, bratty, contrarian, and appalled by her sister’s new boyfriend. When her older sister, Mara (Margaux Susi) shows up at their doomed home with Jeff (Tim Rock), she spots the “tin nightingale” immediately and gives him a rude welcome.
Their fable-like doomed home is a California estate of 3000 acres, with the main house falling down around their ears, a haunted lake, withered vineyard, guest compound, and an overdue mortgage with foreclosure looming. The girls’ father, Skip (Tom Amandes), might be described as a figure of counter-cultural white flight, an aging Kumbaya inclined to bloviate about karma. The extended family includes Gloria (Eileen Galindo) and her teenaged son, Victor (Tonatiuh Elizarraraz), two Mexicans sin papeles who live in the guest-house.
Following the instinct of Zo, the entire clan gives Jeff something of a rough greeting, a sorting-out probably due to their concern for Mara. During introductions, we learn that Jeff is Mara’s boss. His company is called PreferenceTech, a marketing service with a system for delivering target ads. Mara seems to have the looney notion of marrying Jeff — whose money will save the family estate.
Two additional characters complete the story’s ensemble: Bernie (Carlos Campos), Skip’s ineffectual manager and accountant, bringing the news of their imminent loss. And the ghost of the lake, La LLorona herself (Murielle Zuker), the weeping mother who murdered her children.
There are erotic complications, surprising pairings, conversations with the dead, and indeed, a foreclosure auction.
Director Eli Gonda is excellent with the actors, everyone is perfectly cast, and the ensemble is a delight. The beautifully written role of Zo is especially memorable in a great performance by Stephens.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Thu.-Sat. 8p.m.; Sun. 7p.m. through June 11. (323) 380-8843, iamatheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours with intermission.