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'Destiny' runs amuck — in a good way

It's taken me a few days to sit down and write a review for "Destiny of Desire" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I needed time to let it all sink in; the production is brimming with so much zany brilliance that any patron with the nerve to attend will probably need a couple of days just to metabolize the experience.

Karen Zacaria's hilarious and subversive play is written in the style of the telenovela, which proves to be an astute mechanism for addressing a wide range of political themes through a lens of unhinged humor and broad, Brechtian style theatrical devices that keep the audience fully engaged in a roller coaster ride of comedic fabulousness that also dips into deeper themes of sexuality, class disparity, machismo culture and the ongoing struggle of women in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Director Jose Luis Valenzuela — a preeminent theater talent who is also a tenured professor at the UCLA School of Theater — has directed the play three times before; it's clear he knows what he's doing on this, his fourth foray into the material. Valenzuela's hand is steady on the rudder, and despite standout performances from almost every actor onstage, the ensemble is more potent than the sum of its parts, functioning like a well-oiled machine despite raucous hi-jinx and an unforgiving pace that infects the audience with a sense of giddy dread — this is experimental theater at full throttle.

The story line — two babies swapped at birth, one with a robust constitution, the daughter of a poor farmer; the other a weak-hearted child born of a wealthy casino-owner and his conniving wife — has distinct Shakespearean allusions, being filled with scenarios involving cover-up and mistaken identity. An hour into the first act, I felt as though I was captive in a fever-induced dream, although not an unpleasant one. Men of fiery temper face off with machetes. Girls secretly kiss, and married couples take lovers. Actors break away to heave signs into the air like rafts to guide the plot through a roiling sea of intersecting genres. Frenetic dance numbers occur with alarming frequency, with strobe lights and abundant wicked gyrations from the cast.

Throughout the show, real statistics regarding sex, crime and, especially, patriarchal bias are flung into the audience as if to punctuate the underlying tensions that give "Destiny of Desire" so much of its potency. Brilliant dialogue ricochets around the auditorium, and there are hilarious moments in which the time-space continuum is manipulated so that actors plunge into hyperactive reverse action like rickety automatons. This might have all been to much to handle, but with the level of expertise on hand from Valenzuela and Zacaria, the whole thing comes together as the best show of the season so far.

It's clear from the audience response — especially from the grade school attendees, who seemed fully engaged if the giggles, gasps and whispers were anything to go by — that "Destiny of Desire" will be the favored production of the 2018 season, a ticket as hot as the onstage allurement.

Set design by François Pierre Couture, the brilliant young Québécois with a string of awards to his name, is Gothic and glamorous, with vast swaths of red fabric draping the stage and a crumbling but romantic atmosphere reminiscent of some campy, iconic but decaying West End theater. Weirdly haunting music is provided by Juan Manuel Rivera Colon on a sleek, black, candelabra topped piano.

The cast is superb, with a particularly brilliant performance from Vilma Silva as Fabiola Castillo, a wealthy housewife with a wicked manipulative streak who is nevertheless a sympathetic figure, and from Ella Saldana North and Esperanza America as the adult versions of the swapped out babies. North and America are both exceptional young actors with a flair for flamboyant comedic gesture.

Armando Duran is obnoxiously vigorous as the blindly patriarchal Don Castillo, and Catherine Castellanos is perfection as Sister Sonia, a deeply religious hospital nurse and the conscience of the group.

"Destiny of Desire" is a hallucinogenic work of rare brilliance and distinct courage, wholly original in conception and delivery. It's unlike anything I've seen from this company before, and I'd venture a guess that it will be the most innovative production of OSF's 2018 season.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.