Telluride Inside… and Out, Denver: “Mariela in the Desert” at The Ricketson

Telluride Inside… and Out, Denver: “Mariela in the Desert” at The Ricketson

Mariela-in-the-Desert-main419.sflb Mariela's bummed, and Jose is in a major slump, but Telluride Inside… and Out is riding a wave that just won't quit on our whirlwind tour of Denver's rich cultural landscape.

Encouraged by Telluride Inside… and Out contributor and member of the Denver Center Company, Tracy Shaffer, on Wednesday night we attended a performance of Karen Zacarias' Award-winning play "Mariela in the Desert" at the Denver Center's Ricketson Theatre,  a tour de force of magical realism –  ghosts live and paint brushes are weapons –  that left us dumbstruck and moved to tears.

Jose (Robert Sicular) is a painter having a really bad hair day – everyday. The fire in his belly that compelled him to make art has long died out, leaving him without the will to live.

Years earlier, as rising young stars the 1930s art world dominated by Diego Rivera and Freida Kahlo, Jose and Mariela left Mexico City for a ranch in northern Mexico to start their own artists' colony. The move, however, proved to be the beginning of the end: Jose's creativity dried up in the desert sun. Now 20 years later, bitter and disengaged, what's left of him slowly succumbs to a debilitating disease.

Jose's inevitable end – and the end of his family – however, was set in motion years earlier in a terrifying moment when the studio erupts in fire, killing Carlos.

Carlos (Jean-Pierre Serret) was Jose's and Mariela's autistic son and Mariela's preoccupation. His death served to underline the central tragedy of the story: the strangled creativity of Mariela, sacrificed on the altar of domestic stability. From the moment their son dies, and his sister Blanca (Vivia Font), a talented painter in her own right, leaves for the city, Jose and Mariela go through the motions, but nobody's home. All that remains in the wake of the children's departure is a deafening silence and the shadow of the love that once was acted out from time to time. Silence, futile embraces, and a blue painting with a gash down the center of the canvas, Jose's alleged masterpiece. In fact, the painting is the play's central metaphor (for a family violently torn apart), and its essential lie, a lie underlined by Blanca's beau, Adam, (Sam Gregory), an art professor and critic, who admires the work out of hand.

Under the brilliant, spare direction of Bruce K. Sevy,  the entire cast of "Mariela in the Desert" performed as an ensemble in perfect harmony to bringing flesh and blood characters to the stage. But as good as it gets got better in Serrat's pitch-perfect, heartbreaking portrayal of autism, and in the work of Yetta Gottesman as Mariela, and Franca Barchiesi as Jose's sister Oliva.

Gottesman, a study in less is more, spoke volumes with an arch of her eyebrow and a regal bearing. Her Mariela may bend, but she won't break. Barchiesi's Oliva needed only a few well-chosen words to tell her sad tale, managing to use her body like a dancer to speak volumes about a life lived in others' shadows.

Mariela and Oliva are really two sides of the same coin: Mariela, a voluptuous, defiant beauty, married, admired – and repressed; Oliva, a Modigliani, beautiful too, but as withered like a Modigliani, unmarried, ignored – and likewise repressed. One seethes quietly. The other prays loudly and often. It was the 1950s after all, when choices for a woman were limited: stand out (for your beauty, heaven forbid for your talent), stand by your man, or stand down. In the end, however, "Mariela in the Desert" is hopeful. The proto-feminist Mariela literally paints a rosier future.

Scenic designer Vicki Smith also deserves to take a bow: her minimal set is "Mariela's" seventh character, representing the unforgiving, starkly beautiful desert – and the desert of the heart.

Through May 15.

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