Imagine that you’ve just moved to a new home. It has multiple floors, a formidable tree, and a garden that could really be something with a few more blossoms and shrubs. There’s just one problem—the couple in the house next door has been planting flowers on part of your property for years, and they pout and snap whenever you confront them. Why, you wonder, can’t they just admit that it isn’t theirs?
Now picture the other side of the equation. You’ve meticulously cared for those flowers, nourishing them with both love and pesticides. Who are your neighbors to rob you of that pleasure? They just got here! Why can’t they have some compassion? Why can’t they understand?
Add those two perspectives together and you get Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, which has come to Portland Center Stage. It’s a tale of neighborly conflict that, unfortunately, builds up to an implausibly tidy conclusion. Yet it’s still a treat to watch director Melissa Crespo’s cast of outstanding actors tear into Zacarías’ deliciously tart dialogue, bringing their characters to gloriously unlikable life.
Native Gardens chronicles the misadventures of Tania and Pablo Del Valle (Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez and Erick González), who have just moved in next to Virginia and Frank Butley (Anne-Marie Cusson and Paul DeBoy). The relationship between the two couples is fraught from the start—the Del Valles, who are Latinx, put up with a lot of casually racist chatter from the Butleys, who are white (get ready to cringe when Virginia crudely tells Tania that she looks “so Mexican”).
Yet nothing irks the Del Valles more than the realization that one of Frank’s beloved flower beds is on their property (the fence that separates their respective yards was installed in the wrong spot long ago, it turns out). Tania and Pablo want to remove the flowers in time for a barbeque they are hosting, but an outraged Frank insists that would ruin his chance to win an upcoming garden contest.
There is something refreshingly democratic about this absurd battle royale. While a lesser playwright might have written Native Gardens as a saga of blandly virtuous people of color being mistreated by blandly villainous whites, Zacarías gives all her characters the honor of being obnoxious. Frank’s decision to threaten the Del Valles (“I know powerful people!”) may be appalling, but so are Tania’s endless sermons about the benefits of native plants, which suggest that she delights in making others feel ignorant (“I’m not being judgmental,” she insists. “Just informed”).
Native Gardens also brilliantly subverts gender stereotypes. When Tania blames Pablo and Frank for the impending garden war and attempts to bargain with Virginia, compromise seems imminent. But any hope that the women will be less aggressive and competitive than the men is obliterated when Tania and Virginia walk away from their negotiations even more incensed than before (later, Virginia goes so far as to chain herself to a chair to protect Frank’s flowers).
By all rights, this story should have climaxed with some brazen slapstick shenanigans. Yet the final showdown between Frank and Pablo (which involves the lid of a garbage can being used as a shield) turns out to be a stiff prelude to a strangely cheerful ending. While I don’t believe that Zacarías was wrong to pursue a hopeful conclusion, she lightens the mood so abruptly that the play’s optimism winds up feeling hollow and unearned.
And yet I still admired and enjoyed Native Gardens, not only because of the performances (Gonzalez’s syrup-sweet delivery and DeBoy’s childlike vulnerability are particularly wondrous), but also because of the play’s equal-opportunity approach to satire. The fact that the Del Valles are liberal and the Butleys are conservative is addressed only a few times, but it underlines what seems to be Zacarías’ credo: great comedy demands that you both enlighten and offend as many different kinds of people as possible.
- Native Gardens runs through June 16 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave, Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.