It's a Wonderful Vida at Onstage Playhouse

What is the American Dream Really? 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Jaden Guerrero and Hannahtrujillo. Photo by Daren Scott.

December brings a plethora of Christmas show options wherever you go. Usually the classics, so it is nice to see a holiday show with more variety like in this case, Onstage Playhouse's world premiere It's a Wonderful Vida by Herbert Sigüenza. Playing with the original It's a Wonderful Life, Sigüenza brings another adaptation with cultural twists to the stage. This time, it is a Mexican-American family based in Corpus Christi during the late '50s. I must admit being hesitant to watch the production because the last adaptation from Herbert I saw, Bad Hombres, Good Wives (Molière’s School for Wives), regarding Mexican drug cartels, pedophilia in the catholic church, grooming, etc,  I was traumatized. Although a satire, the time that play premiered at the now defunct SD REP in 2019, the drug cartel related Lebaron family massacre had just happened in Sonora, México, where two women and seven children were shot and some were burned alive in a car. You can imagine my horror as well as the 12 other (Mexican) people that came with me to the theatre that day. Anyway, I was hesitant but, as a critic and professional, -as well as an Onstage Playhouse fan- I went. 'Vida was not what I expected and here's why, along with some notes: Continuing with the dark satirical look, the plot also directed by Sigüenza entails the Pacheco family made by Pancho (Richard Rivera), Aurelia (Veronica Burgess) and their 3 kids Joe (Javier Guerrero), Alice (Wendy Sanchez), and Jimmy (Jaden Guerrero). Joe the oldest, is a mechanic who has his own business and a former alcoholic, Jimmy gets gigs from his brother but is also falling out of the path having a relationship with an older woman and serving as a drug mule. Alice is a "PAT" a Mexican-American Princess that slashes the Mexican part embracing the American and a "no sabo" kid as well as a brat. Saint Nick (Nick Young) is the narrator and starts off the story explaining to the audience that he will become Santa and introduces us to the family where the patriarch Pancho, who came to the states during the Mexican Revolution and has worked in a hotel for over 20 years, going up the professional ladder and waiting to be appointed manager. Aurelia and Pancho had two older kids before arriving to The States both enrolled in the American army and killed in the war. 

Veronica Burgess. Photo by Daren Scott.

One day, there is a knock at the door and there is Elena (Hannah Trujillo) a blonde Mexican woman from Veracruz, based in Mexico City asking for help because her car does not work. The Pacheco couple between nostalgia and longing is woowed by Elena's presence as well as Joe. They invite her to stay while the car is in repair and Joe engages in a heartfelt conversation about how people in Mexico make fun of him and his accented Spanish sharing too that he does not understand the attitude being that Mexico is dirty. Elena explains that border cities are different from the rest of the country and that is why Joe has that impression using only border cities as a representation of Mexico. While Saint Nick chimes in to fill in the gaps, the story is portrayed like a sitcom or a sketch including recorded laughs. Alice who is reading magazines and lying on the couch all day, decides to elope with her boyfriend who tosses her as soon as she sleeps with him. Alice upset, attributes the toss to being Mexican. Pancho is headed to his graveyard shift at the hotel and does not make it because he gets caught in the middle of a drug bust that involves Jimmy. Once everything is semi-settled, Pancho goes back home announcing to the family that he did not get the promotion. There is a dialogue about discrimination and how the family kids are not from here or Mexico. A gunshot is heard and Saint Nick decides to change the narrative so there is a happy ending where Pancho quits and gets hired at another hotel where he is appointed manager. Elena and Joe get married and have a baby, Jimmy mends his ways, and Alice, now Alicia decides to embrace her cultural heritage.

All the characters are interesting ones, convincing and well-rooted. I like how the conversation about being discriminated in both countries sort of challenges the concept of the American Dream. What is the American Dream really? and what does it entail?. All the performances are good. OSP regulars Nick Young, Javier Guerrero and Jaden Guerrero as their acting precedes them, did a great job. Nick with a voice and deep tone for days totally gives the modernized, 21st-century Santa figure, Javier is bold and passionate and Jaden as the outcast, James Deen/Cholo-ish youngster is on point being obedient and mannered with his parents, semi-mannered with his older brother and just plain not caring with his sister which he "mensea" (calls mensa) the whole play *chuckles*. 

Veronica Burgess is a natural and hits the dramatic as well as the comedic notes. Richard Rivera delivers a tender and tired role meaning you feel a Pancho Pacheco that loves his family and is happy yet, is tired of the groundhog day husstle. Hannah Trujillo is a perfect Elena in form as well as intention and has the voice and diction of an angel. I totally can see her as the upscale Mexican blonde but, interpretation/casting wise -being picky and in this case I will totally be-, if you are handling the concept/role of a Mexican character from Mexico that is bilingual, there should be someone fully bilingual to deliver the lines with no accent in either language. We are in a border town and those actors are amongst us. Another note or question I have is regarding the line about the "Mexican Revolution in the 20s". The Mexican revolution was in 1910 and ended in 1917. 

Anthony Garcías set design of the Pacheco family house is detailed and also realistic with both wallpaper and wooden walls accented with pictures and many props that make sense. He also included a porch/outdoor area that definitely accents a couple of the scenes as well as Santa´s narration. Brad Duboi´s 50s costume design is too realistic and detailed from the poofy dresses to Joe's mechanic jumpsuit.
Veronica Burgess, Javier Guerrero and Hannah Trujillo photo by Daren Scott

So, in conclusion. It was not what I expected in a good way. Again, I think it shows an aspect of immigrant families especially Latin American to the United States, and what it entails trying to fit in and assimilate. However, the archetype of the Mexican family migrating to The States that has been viced and turned into a stereotype in most plays, remains. Usually exploring one demographic which is the families working in the service industry, not that happy and with a chip on their shoulder. Not unreal, but not all there is only either. I.E my reviews about El Borracho and Fandango for Butterflies. We have had that same conversation in American theatre for decades. Let us move forward and have more conversations exploring different diverse stories like José Cruz González's American Mariachi, Amaranta Leyva's Mía: All Mine translated by Carmen Rivera, Karen Zacarías´Native Gardens, and Diana Burbano's Sapience to name a few examples that have premiered either recently, or in the last 5 years. I would also love to see Herbert adapt or write something about his Salvadorian heritage contributing to this diverse conversation. There is a play that has stuck with me since I saw it 7 years ago and that is PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo by Paul S. Flores based on interviews with former MS-13 members. 

I would definitely love to see more and learn more.

It's a Wonderful Vida is currently playing until December 21 at the Chula Vista venue. For information on performance times and prices please click here.

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