By Mimi Pollack
Molière is smiling. The multi-talented actor and playwright, Herbert Siguenza, has breathed new life into his play, The Imaginary Invalid. Manifest Destinitis is set two centuries later in 19th century “old or Alta California”. This high energy play is also brimming with clever and scathing 21st century social commentary on the upcoming election, Trump and his ‘wall’, and the present day health care system.
Siguenza is becoming a San Diego treasure in the theater world with his plays, Steal Heaven, An Evening with Pablo Picasso, El Henry (a favorite of mine), and now Manifest Destinitis. In August, he began a three year residency as Playwright-in-Residence with the San Diego Repertory Theater through the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. San Diego will benefit greatly.
Directed by the venerable Sam Woodhouse, Manifest Destinitis is set in the home of Don Aragon, a wealthy “Californio” and a proud Spaniard who is not ready for the changes that are coming to California after the Mexican-American war and the Gold Rush, including the influx of Americans or “Greencoats” [ AKA Gringos]. Along with many imaginary maladies, Don Aragon also suffers from “Manifest Destinitis”—a riff on Manifest Destiny, the belief that it was a God given right for the United States to expand from coast to coast—as this is going to change his world as he knows it.
Besides seeing the world he has known changing all around him, he is also worried about the future of his two daughters, Angelica and Luisa, and making sure they marry men of suitable Spanish backgrounds. He thinks he has found the perfect husband for his daughter, Angelica, when he finds out his neighbor, Don Pedro Diaz, has a son, Tomas, who just returned from Spain after studying to be a doctor. For him, it is the perfect combination of wealth and someone to attend to his hypochondriac needs.
What he does not know is that Angelica has met and fallen in love with a young Americano, Charlie Sutter, and Luisa is a gay feminist who has no interest in being a proper Spanish lady. Then, there is also the cunning stepmother, Don Aragon’s second wife, Belen de Aragon, a gold-digger who is carrying on an affair behind his back with an American that she passes off as her Spanish lawyer. She would like to see the girls shipped off to a convent in Spain.
In the midst of all this mayhem is Tonia, the good-hearted Indian servant who slyly manages the affairs of the dysfunctional household. She is the heart and soul of the play, and through her meddling, exposes the stepmother for who she is and brings Angelica and Charlie together.
Mark Pinter gives an engaging and wry performance as Don Aragon, the befuddled and pompous Spaniard. Jennifer Paredes, playing dual roles, is delightful as Angelica, but really shines as Luisa, a cross between a fiery Betty Freidan, Peter Pan, and a cholo. She is a young performer with a bright future ahead of her. The always regal John Padilla is good as Don Pedro Diaz, and very funny as the sleazy American lawyer, Robert Mayo.
The graceful and fierce, Roxanne Carrasco, who was so good in El Henry, gives a convincing performance as the conniving second wife, stepmother, and hustler. Jacob Caltrider is perfect as the 19th century California surfer dude with the valley girl accent. Richard P. Trujillo is a chameleon actor who plays both Dr. Burgos and a hilarious Friar Beto [with a bald spot that looks like a yarmulke]. The darling Scotty Atienza plays the pueblo newsboy who alerts the audience to the changing events in California history.
Salomon Maya is notable as the hilarious Tomas. Channeling the late actor/comedian Marty Feldman and his eyes, he plays him as a fey, but slightly lecherous, twitching social misfit. He and Trujillo are also good as swaggering park rangers.
The standout of the play is Herbert Siguenza as Tonia. His Tonia reminded me of a cross between the famous Mexican character, La India Maria, and Cantinflas with all the physical humor, pratfalls, and human warmth, while also making the role his own. Tonia is the glue that brings it all together and the smartest one of the bunch despite being the “lowly Indian servant”, a social commentary in itself.
Sean Fanning, the set designer, Jennifer Brawn Gittings, the costume designer, and Lonnie Alcaraz, the lighting designer, should all be commended for doing a fine job that helped bring the play to life.
Finally, Manifest Destinitis is a timely play with clever and current political commentary disguised as a very funny 19th century farce.
- “Manifest Destinitis” runs through Oct. 9 at the San Diego REP, 79 Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego
- Performances are Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., with some Saturday matinees
- Tickets ($35-$62) are available at 619-544-1000 or online at sdrep.org
- Running time: 2 hrs.
The San Diego audience is also in for a special treat when two founding members of Culture Clash—Siguenza and Ric Salinas—give a one night performance of the play, El Cipitio, on October 17th at the SD REP. This play is presented by Amigos Del REP.