‘Native Gardens” is a tale of two backyards in a well-off D.C. suburb: One is a meticulously maintained, aggressively pest-controlled grid of exotics. The other, next door, is a neglected plot of dirt that its new owners plan to plant with native species and helpful insects.
And between these conflicting horticultural philosophies, a disputed property line, a high-stakes backyard barbeque, and a gardening competition, things are about to get less and less neighborly for the owners of these two backyards.
Karen Zacarías’ sly social comedy ran live in the usual fashion at Portland Stage, under the direction of Jade King Carroll. Then came COVID-19. Happily, “Native Gardens” is now available to watch from our seclusion, via streaming video.
The yard of azaleas and carefully edged grass is the longtime pride and joy of Frank Butley (Mitch Tebo) and his wife Virginia (Laura Houck), an older white professional couple who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. The dingier yard came with the fixer-upper bought by young lawyer Pablo Del Valle (Jose-Maria Aguila) and his very pregnant anthropologist wife Tania (Octavia Chavez-Richmond).
In many ways, the two couples are as different as their yards, and as the gloves come off, the four will take on race, gender, class, immigration, and entitlement, along with the relative worth of hydrangeas.
“Very European,” is how Tania describes Frank’s garden, making it sound like a dirty word. It is very pretty, though, and I wish we could smell through video because the set of the Butleys’ garden is a gorgeous living tableau of flowers and shrubs – much in contrast to the drab and debris of next door.
The four characters enact the gestures of ownership of these spaces in a range of ways. Aguila’s Pablo, handsome and slim in his suit and expensive shoes, has a bit of arrogance in his graceful stride, a bit of vanity, which plays well with the casual ease of Chavez-Richmond’s Tania, with her ripped jeans and cheerful resting state of balance.
At first they both hit it off reasonably well with Houck’s aggressively friendly Virginia and Tebo’s rangy, dad-jokey, oblivious Mitch, who cares so deeply for his plants. But both Pablo and Tania are gradually drawn into battle mode as Virginia gets fiercer and more sanctimonious, as Frank yells his way through his confusion and hurt, as four adults are reduced to gags of throwing trash and cigarette butts into one another’s yards.
“Native Gardens” features plenty of that kind of sit-comical high jinx. But its slapstick skirmishes and the expertly timed comedy of its conversations also present a vehicle for deeper ideas and problems. These conflicts over land and ownership, exotics and natives, lead to questions about the nature of origins, identity, ownership, colonialism, and an especially savvy analog for the legacy of privilege: not being aware that you occupy someone else’s land doesn’t make it OK for you to keep occupying it, even if it’s painful to give it up.
And how does it feel to take in a play via video?
Of course, there are things you miss: the feeling of sitting in the house in the darkness and echoes, the autonomy of our own eyes curating where we look, the moment-to-moment vitality of what is happening onstage, and – perhaps especially – the sense of sitting, experience, and responding as a community.
But mostly, I felt grateful to be there at all, even virtually. I hope other theater artists will find ways over these weeks to bring us into the dark, then show us some light.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
At home with art
• On April 1, SPACE launches its new series “Broadcasts: Art in the Age of Social Distancing,” described as a “remote multi-disciplinary exhibition” that will feature artists of all stripes and modes. Go to https://bit.ly/2UMayoR to opt in for the broadcasts (or to submit one!).
• Quarantine Theater Presents, with Jenny Van West and friends, is streaming reading, music, creative writing prompts, and listener letters. So far they’ve been reading “My Side of the Mountain,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and Pema Chodrön’s “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.” Find them at https://bit.ly/3auisdf.
• Aspiring young playwrights can take part in The Youth Playwrighting Challenge, with the Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine. Kids will be connected to a mentor to guide them through 10 playwrighting lessons, and they’ll also Zoom with other young playwrights to read and revise. Sign up at https://bit.ly/39qpA93.
• The Great Small Works Toy Theater, whose tour normally stops at Mayo Street Arts, will be live streaming its festival from New York on April 2 and 3. Find out how to watch at https://bit.ly/3430pbK.
• Speedwell Projects presents a new weekly series of live Zoom talks with a writer, artist, dancer, or thinker. After kicking off this past week with Bill Roorbach, the series features Lily King on Thursday, April 2. Visit https://bit.ly/39vpi0y.
• The Portland Museum of Art is moving its film series online. New titles will be added regularly in what will become a virtual rental store, plus occasional live Q&As scheduled with filmmakers. Up now are “Fantastic Fungi,” a doc about the miracles that are mushrooms, and “Saint Frances,” a narrative feature about a young nanny and an unplanned pregnancy. New this week will be “Extra Ordinary,” an Irish comedy-horror, and “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” about the legendary Americana band. Go to https://bit.ly/2JC9j6J.
— Megan Grumbling