Between September 5th and the 30th, the Pasadena Playhouse will host another worthwhile production in “Native Gardens.” Having debuted in Cincinnati, OH, in 2016, with roughly 18 disparate productions to date around the country (each show has a different cast and director), the play touches on the topic of borders and strife – which has occupied much of the national consciousness. However, as opposed to coming at it from an expectedly earnest angle, the play focuses on a microcosmic example, using a (literally) backyard premise to elucidate its far-reaching message.
Even better, it’s a perspicacious comedy set in Washington D.C. that is written by Mexican-American virtuoso playwright, Karen Zacarías, who pits a young Latino couple, Pablo, an up-and-coming attorney, and his expectant wife, Tania del Valle, a doctoral candidate, against the established older Butleys, Frank and Virginia. The del Valles have just moved into a fixer-upper, and everything seems rosy until the Butleys, who are ardent gardeners, take issue with the former’s horticultural habits. Exacerbating the issue is a dispute over the property line, and the fence that demarcates this point, in their respective yards.
If the plot seems appropriately absurd, it’s because it is – and audiences will relish the boisterous laughs that accompany this story. Joining Zacarías in this version of “Native Gardens” is “Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander, who, as director, is set to help make this one the funniest yet. And alongside them is a decorated cast, including Christian Barillas of “Modern Family” as Pablo del Valle, Jessica Meraz of “Major Crimes” as Tania del Valle, Academy-Award nominee Bruce Davison as Frank Butley, and Francis Fisher of “Titanic” as Virginia Butley.
Recently, Karen Zacarías graciously took some time out of her schedule to discuss her origins, how “Native Gardens” first took root, her relationship with Jason Alexander, and what she expects during the show’s Pasadena Playhouse run.
You’ve certainly established quite the reputation across the country as a reputable playwright. What inspired you to become one?
Zacarías: When I moved to this country when I was 10 from Mexico, there was a boy who would tell me mean things after school, and I didn’t have a comeback. My English was getting stronger, and I would write what he said and also write a good dialogue if I were to bump into him again. I wrote a backstory about this boy to explain why he was so mean to me as I grew to have empathy for him on paper.
Ultimately, he lost his power to hurt me. In a way he became a great gift to me in that I learned to protect and defend myself with words. I’ve never forgotten this story and that 10-year-old girl is always with me when I write all my plays.
Eventually, I became interested in writing a story that could’ve been, instead of a story that was. Playwrighting was a way to navigate in a new country and connect with people and establish a bridge. I was also intrigued with the imaginary world on stage.
There is, without a doubt, something very topical about ‘Native Gardens’ from a news standpoint, whether we’re looking at border disputes between neighboring countries or, taken further, nationalism versus globalism. To witness two couples warring over gardening styles in a play that garners laughs, we might take away the idea that perhaps things aren’t as bad as they seem if we can expand our perspectives a bit. Is that your intention here?
Zacarías: Yes, something along those lines. It was more about what does it take to be a good neighbor and how you can’t control what the other side is doing. You can only control your own actions. For example, it’s fun to fight on Twitter, but in the long run, which battle are you winning and which seeds are you sewing? It [‘Native Gardens’] is not kumbaya, but there’s serious subjects of racism, classicism, ageism, and sexism.
But I start from a place where all characters are likable and are not irredeemable. I think most people fall within the realm of redemption, and I wanted to examine my role in how to be a better neighbor and a better American. It’s a comedy and doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but it’s disarming and allows us to look at plants – the metaphor for everything here – and not be accusatory. We should all look at ourselves, and, at the end of the day, hope the only people we are judging is ourselves.
You’ve penned plays that fit into different genres, not just comedy. In this case, did the jokes and one-liners come naturally or was it a challenge? Was ‘Native Gardens’ always intended as a comedy?
Zacarías: I write in a certain rhythm. My dramas have a poetic rhythm and my musicals have a musical rhythm. If you read the play, it has a flow to it, and the jokes seem innocuous on paper, but on stage, it’s reliant and rooted in the humanity of it, and so the actors that do my play have to learn the rhythm, which makes it funnier. It requires so much precision from the actors — a look, a turn, a pause, etc., which can make a moment rise or fall.
At the same time, when I write jokes, I try to hear the laughter before the audience does and so it was written with that hope. To have a play written by a Mexican-American immigrant, on one of the most important stages on the West Coast, is an honor. These stories are part of the fabric and canon of American theatre, and as someone who initially felt so ‘other’ when I moved here, it’s healing and exciting for me.
How did Jason Alexander come on board as director of this particular production of ‘Native Gardens’ at the Pasadena Playhouse? And what’s it been like working with him?
Zacarías: Jason Alexander is a good friend of Danny Feldman, the artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse. Jason has been lovely to work with. He’s very hard-working, has a background in theatre, has a great respect for plays, and is of the mindset that the best idea wins. I thought I would feel intimidated, but it quickly became ‘it’s Jason and Karen,’ and he built a room where I could say ‘I don’t think that idea is working,’ and he would agree. I’ve learned a lot from this collaboration – and both his excitement for the play and his humility make him a lovely collaborator.
Petty disputes are laughable on the outside looking in, but in the moment, they feel like serious business maybe as a manifestation of an emotional tipping point. Sadly, most of us are not immune to the occasional episode. What’s the last petty dispute you can recall – that you’re willing to share – and how did you resolve it?
Zacarías: We were building on our house and our next-door neighbor threw a little bit of a fit about it. At first, I was going to invite her over for dinner, but I decided I against it. I realized I was being petty. I understood she was upset, and I got yelled at, but it took 6 months to invite her only to discover she was interesting and warm. And I had held a grudge against her – this little thing. I was holding onto my grudge because it was delicious, but then I realized it wasn’t as delicious as having dinner together. At some point you have to let go.
I read an interesting book about a woman who had the world’s best memory, recalling every moment in her life. It was hell for her because she remembered every slight since the negative usually burns brighter than the positive. And I find that book fascinating because human beings need to repress or forget to survive, and for her it was hard to go forward.
Would you say that the script has more or less remained the same since premiering in 2016, or have you tinkered it with it based on audience feedback?
Zacarías: I’ve tinkered with it even for Pasadena. We added D.C. specific jokes when it was in D.C. and I have made several rewrites along the way, including for this production. It’s a living document. Some were things that Jason Alexander suggested; it’s interesting to have a give and take on all of that.
How do you think the Pasadena Playhouse cast compares to the previous productions of ‘Native Gardens?’ What can you say of the rehearsal process thus far, and do you think it will surprise you when it begins its run at the Playhouse on September 5th?
Zacarías: I think I’m going to be surprised. There are some things I haven’t seen, and some takes that I haven’t imagined. Jason hired serious actors to do this play, because at the root there’s something very human about this comedy. Everyone has been so wonderful and humble, and I’ve had a great conversation with every actor about their process. I’m lucky to be out here.
For more information about “Native Gardens” at the Pasadena Playhouse, please visit pasadenaplayhouse.org