Addison — WaterTower Theatre’s production of Tony Meneses’ Guadalupe in the Guest Room, directed by Christie Vela, has some winning aspects in the staging, but the play itself baffles.
The central premise is the conflict that arises between Guadalupe and her son-in-law, Steve, during her extended stay after Claudia’s death. She was Guadalupe’s daughter and Steve’s wife. Guadalupe speaks very little English and Steve little Spanish. This is part of the problem. Not because of the inaccessibility to either language by audience members but because of the representational approach. More on that later.
Among the high points is Bob Lavalle’s scenic design, which makes wonderful use of the space. On the floor level is the evidently affluent house of Steve’s wife and Guadalupe’s now-deceased daughter, Claudia. The mid-20th century modern aesthetic of the two bedrooms (Steve and Claudia’s) and Guadalupe’s guest room, the clean and upscale lines of all of the furniture including the kitchen, indicate an understated sense of privilege and wealth. The audience knows that Claudia was a Spanish-English bilingual teacher at a primary school, and we know what kind of salary they make. So, it must have been her Anglo husband’s salary that provided for this elegant comfort.
An upper-level stage represents a space that evokes a large-screen TV for the action of the telenovela that the mother and son-in-law share in bonding. The lighting design (Aaron Johansen) syncs flawlessly with the action and gave the space a warm feel. The sound design (John M. Flores) is subtle and unobtrusive, and the costumes (Korey Kent) are nicely realized. Noteworthy are the incredibly short costume changes necessary for the actors playing double roles (Gabrielle Reyes and David Lugo). In spite of this mayhem, the action flows seamlessly.
The performances by Leticia Magaña as Guadalupe and Gabrielle Reyes as Raquel (Claudia’s friend from work) give us a nuanced peek into the lives of these two women, united now by the project of translating Claudia’s unpublished children’s stories into Spanish.
Both Reyes and David Lugo play double roles, with him as Roberto, the new gardener and also the melodramatic and hilarious Don Juan-esque character in the telenovela. He delivers a funny, stylized spoof on the overly dramatic Latin American soap operas, as does Reyes as the love counterpart in the TV show. I had difficulty connecting with Andrews W. Cope as Steve, the bereaved husband. He either under- or over-reacts to prompts from the two women; their speech is conversational, whereas his is not. It’s a curious performance choice.
There are other inconsistencies, too. For instance, the gardener is supposed to be back in a week, but we see him the next day; and Guadalupe doesn’t knock on Steve’s bedroom door once and causes a panic, but then in other scenes she does.
But the most baffling is the whole notion that this play is predicated on a language barrier between Steve, a monolingual Anglophone, and Guadalupe, a monolingual Spanish speaker. I looked up online interviews with the playwright, Tony Meneses, and he seemed to reiterate that Spanish-English miscommunication aspect. But it is simply not present in the performance. What seems to be happening is that parts that were originally in Spanish were translated into English and delivered as though the characters were speaking in Spanish, even as they speak in perfect, American English. The guess here is that this choice was made to water down the Spanish for the benefit of a predominantly monolingual, English-speaking audience.
If this was the case, it worked for them; the play got numerous laughs on opening night. But why then choose a play that is predicated on the use of another language to underscore the challenges of inter-cultural communication? One can only imagine the challenges that director Christie Vela faced to address these issues. The question that arises is in the selection of this particular play (selected by previous artistic director Joanie Schultz, who had Vela read it before selecting it, as explained in our interview with Vela). If diversity and inclusion was the goal, then it was met only halfway: Yes because of the multi-racial cast and Latinx playwright and director; but no to choosing a safe, half-baked script.
Another gnawing question is a dramaturgical one. The premise of the piece is the relationship that develops between a mother-in-law and her dead daughter’s husband. Guadalupe has been staying at the house since her daughter became sick and subsequently died, a month prior to the action of the play. Repeat: It has only been one month. One would expect more pathos from the loss of a beloved wife and daughter.
At the end of the day the unsettling aspect is not being certain if this play is a comedy or a dramatic piece. While the campy portrayal of the telenovela provides comic relief—thanks to David Lugo’s talent—the lack of a clear identity within the main conflict makes it difficult to generate empathy for the characters. Nevertheless, Magaña’s Guadalupe, and Gabrielle Reyes’ Raquel breathe life into their relationship, making the viewing worthwhile.
And there’s always the set.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is coeditor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press).