By Charlene Baldridge
The residency of Culture Clash founding member Herbert Siguenza at San Diego Repertory Theatre currently bears luscious fruit with the world premiere of the playwright/actor’s “Manifest Destinitis,” wondrously directed by Rep co-founder and artistic director Sam Woodhouse.
The farce is based on Molière’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” Siguenza resets the action in 1848-50 on an Alta California cattle ranch/ hacienda called Rancho Aragon.
Don Aragon (lovable Mark Pinter, not your ordinary pantalone) is suffering multiple ailments, diagnosed as “Manifest Destinitis” early in the first act by an obvious quack (Dr. Burgos, portrayed by Richard Trujillo). For instance, when Don Aragon complains about his bowels, the doctor puts ear to abdomen and pronounces “vaginitis.” Every diagnosis is accompanied by a request for more pesos. Declaring himself bankrupt, the hypochondriac dismisses the doctor and devises a scheme to marry his nubile daughter to a physician in order to save money.
Manifest Destinitis, which has been diagnosed in multiple area ranchers, is fear of the coming takeover of California, Texas and more by the Yankees, who are winning the Mexican-American War.
Don Aragon has two daughters, the ultra feminine Angelica and the butch Luisa, both played to great effect by Jennifer Paredes. Angelica is in love with a Yankee singer/guitarist named Charlie Sutter (Jacob Caltrider, sporting the biggest codpiece in creation). His endowments are much admired by Don Aragon’s housekeeper, Tonia (Siguenza), who is Angelica’s confidant and champion.
Tomas Diaz (Salomon Maya), the son of neighboring rancher Don Pedro Diaz (John Padilla), has returned, now a certified physician after medical studies abroad, so Don Aragon arranges a marriage between Angelica and Tomas, a ditsy, lecherous, slavering dolt, hilariously played by Maya with rolling eyes and wandering hands. Needless to say, Angelica revolts.
Meanwhile, Don Aragon’s avaricious second wife, Belen (Roxanne Carrasco) and her fake attorney/lover (Padilla in an amusingly turned-up red wig) finagle to gain control of the Aragon estate. The company, many playing multiple roles, also includes Scotty Atienza, who portrays a pueblo newsboy, repeatedly interrupting with news of Yankee battle triumphs.
The glories and delights of “Manifest Destinitis” and its production are the sustained, seemingly effortless physical comedy; spot-on and sincere portrayals; a magnificent hacienda set by Sean Fanning; the hilarity of Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s costumes, which pair clashing print fabrics to screamingly funny effect; the music of composer/sound designer Bruno Louchouarn; the lighting of Lonnie Alcaraz; and the choreography of Spencer Smith, who treats us to a group tango. All around, the work is absolutely first class.
Rather than a standard drag portrayal, Siguenza’s performance as the Indian housekeeper is heartfelt, natural, wise and ultimately touching, rather like Juliet’s nurse in “Romeo and Juliet.” The other portrayals, outrageously funny as they are, manage to capture the essence of farce without straying from the realm of excellence.
“Manifest Destinitis” opens San Diego Repertory’s 41st season. The Andrew Mellon Foundation underwrites Siguenza’s three-year residency. He is author of “A Weekend With Pablo Picasso,” “El Henry” and “Steal Heaven.”
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.