San Diego sees many world premieres in various stages of readiness. The San Diego Rep’s opening night for Manifest Destinitis didn’t feel new at all. To a person the cast and designers performed as if in the final week of a long, glorious run. They were fully confident, outrageously theatrical, and obviously delighted to be part of Herbert Siguenza’s very funny show.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin — aka Molière — was ill when he wrote The Imaginary Invalid in 1673. In the “comedy-ballet,” Argon’s a hypochondriac who never met a diagnosis he didn’t embrace. Rumor had it that Molière was himself a symptom-sucker: the play Elomire Hypochondre said as much in 1670. Also, Molière wrote the part of Aragon for himself. But Aragon’s illness was imaginary. Molière’s wasn’t. During the fourth performance of Imaginary Invalid, it grew worse. Molière died that night, age 51.
Siguenza resets the three-act comedy in Alta California, 1848. After the War with Mexico, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo granted the U.S. almost half of Mexico. Not long after, James Wilson Marshall noticed golden flecks in the river near Sutter’s mill. The Gold Rush brought people by the tens of thousands for quick riches. Many saw the timing — the treaty and 49er fever — as proof of the country’s “manifest destiny” to grab more territory.
“Those Yankees,” Siguenza has a character say, “are not sending their best people.”
Molière’s invalid becomes Don Aragon, owner of a land-grant, a Californio rancho so vast he doesn’t need fences. His doctor, elated with such a cash cow for a patient, diagnoses “gingivitis” — in an arm? — and other pricey maladies. But out of nowhere Don Aragon shouts “Juicy Fruit!” and “Pilates!” as if from an anachronistic case of Tourette’s.
Aragon suffers from “Manifest Destinitis,” also known as the “Yankee Flu.” According to a program note, it broke out in 1847 and infected wealthy Californios threatened by invading hordes. Symptoms include a sense of doom, plus “a deep, abiding terror of losing one’s land, family, language, and Spanish culture.”
And one’s mind. Along with blasts from the future — “tuna casserole!” — Don Aragon can’t tell love from hate. He’s convinced wife Belen adores him, even as she schemes with a gringo, Robert Mayo (-naise?) to steal the estate. The good Don arranges a marriage between his daughter, the fair Angelica, and Thomas Diaz, a young, yet to be housebroken, M.D. So the Don gets free house calls. But she falls deep for Charlie Sutter. A symbol of the culture to come, he acts as if sprung from a Beach Boys album — like, cowabunga, dude! And his last name? Well, do the math.
The playwright packs a lot of early California history into the piece: how the Californios lost their land to legal wranglings, inflated taxation, and squatters. But Destinitis never feels as if a pop quiz will follow. Multipronged humor enlivens the facts and figures.
Instead, Act One, which runs a mite long, may have too many riches. Possibly because he was near death and couldn’t compose a full text, Molière wrote gap-filling interludes. Siquenza, who follows his source faithfully, adds a few more. Some could go. Choosing which, since they’re all entertaining, would be a tough call.
Certainly not Jacob Caltrider’s surfer dude shtick as Charlie Sutter (who wishes they all could be Californio girls). Or the set-up for Romeo y Juliet by the “La Jolla Viejo Globo” (“Old Globe”). Or Thomas’s (Salomon Maya) unbridled, near-psychotic affection for Angelica; he doesn’t just have eyes for her, they bug out. Or young Scotty Atienza’s newsboy shouting 160-year-old headlines with contemporary attitude.
And nobody touch Siguenza’s Tonia, the servant. Her running commentary plugs in current events, and she does a classic pratfall: trips down the stairs, into a wall, into a door, down more steps smack into a coffee table, then the audience, all with the blind anarchy of a drunk and the accuracy of consummate art.
In effect, Tonia takes us on a misguided tour of Sean Fanning’s appealing set, the tile-roofed, earth-toned interior of an old hacienda, lit with blazing reds and golds, and subtle blends of each, by Lonnie Alcaraz.
Sam Woodhouse’s expert direction captures the period and pays homage to Molière. Stagings include the physical shenanigans and disarming flourish of the Commedia dell’Arte, performed with stopwatch timing, and graced by Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s amazing costumes: rambunctious Roxane Carrasco in shiny black from mantilla to zapato; Richard P. Trujillo, who doesn’t perform enough around here, ranges from a Franciscan friar to a modern-day park ranger; and Mark Pinter’s crusty Don Aragon dresses like an infirm Don Quixote. But Aragon’s nightmare is real, not illusions gleaned from chivalrous romances.
Dynamic Jennifer Paredes plays operatically emotional Angelica and her “progressive” sister Luisa, for whom even the 21st Century might not be up to speed (her book club’s reading 50 Shades of Brown). And John Padilla doubles as Thomas’s patrician father, Don Pedro, and as Robert Mayo, the real estate–swindling, Trump-haired Yankee in the green coat. Wait: “green coat” = “grin-go”?
79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
Manifest Destinitis, by Herbert Siguenza
Directed by Sam Woodhouse, cast: Herbert Siguenza, Scotty Atienza, Jacob Caltrider, Roxane Carrasco, Salomon Maya, John Padilla, Jennifer Paredes, Mark Pinter, Richard P. Trujillo; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Lonnie Alcaraz; composer and sound designer, Bruno Louchouarn
Playing through October 9; Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.