“Species Native to California” updates Chekhov to the wine country
from left, Melissa Stephens, Murielle Zuker, Tim Rock, Eileen Galindo / Dean Cechvala

LOS ANGELES—Few types of grape found in the New World ever became commercially viable. The best known would be the Concord from New York State, source of the iconic, sugary Manischewitz brand. If California is now considered one of the premier wine-making regions in the world, it’s because the grape varieties that produce the sought-after vintages of France, Spain and Italy thrive in our Mediterranean climate.

The world premiere of Dorothy Fortenberry’s Species Native to California is a gentle but firm reminder that so much of what passes for cultivated civilization in the United States is a European import (without forgetting, however, that corn, potatoes, chocolate and tomatoes are New World discoveries). Most people wouldn’t recognize a California native species—plant, animal or human—if it rose up and bit them. The playwright is not afraid to utter the word “colonialism.”

Theatergoers recall the thesis of Anton Chekhov’s last play from 1904, The Cherry Orchard, which sadly, humorously and poignantly traces the demise of the old Russian gentry, now dissipated by debt, anomie, and loss of privilege in the face of the upstart bourgeoisie that is energetically remaking the face of Russia with lucrative new industry. The comic playwright Christopher Durang had a good run with his Orchard-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Fortenberry updates the predicament to modern-day Mendocino County. In the end it’s a land-use question: If the current owners are incapable of maintaining it productively in the market economy, then what is to be done with it? The question retains its relevance also in rapidly gentrifying inner cities.

Skip (Tom Amandes) is the pater familias of the nearly 3000-acre estate, a retired philosophy professor with few skills other than his ability to identify native plants. It had been his wife’s property, which she inherited from several generations of California settlers. Needless to say, for thousands of years it was the common weal—not “property” at all in capitalist terms—of the indigenous peoples of the hemisphere. But the wife has up and left for higher spiritual ground in India and we never meet her. Perhaps she was searching for the authenticity of a culture springing naturally from its own land.

Rounding out Skip’s household are his two daughters, the feckless, self-involved Zo (Melissa Stephens) and her sister Mara (Margaux Susi), who has done a stint in the Silicon Valley start-up world but now feels drawn to make something of her old homestead fallen into desuetude.

Then there are Gloria (Eileen Galindo), a refugee from poverty and war in Mexico and a reputed Zapatista, and her bright teen-age son Victor (Tonatiuh Elizarraraz) who is fluent in the language of native species and viticulture, and also knows the right questions to ask about the internet, but has never been allowed to put his knowledge into practice. They are nominally “part of the family” in this liberal, progressive family unit whom we meet as the 2016 elections loom—but events may prove otherwise.

Enter Mara’s boyfriend Jeff (Tim Rock), a self-made internet go-getter who offers to resolve the “land-use” problem and save the estate from the auction block, but also has his own ideas. The public sale is scheduled to take place on the Day of the Dead. Finally, there’s a third-generation Latino Bernie (Carlos Campos), far removed from his roots and working for the local bank, and the classic Mexican folklore character La Llorona (Murielle Zuker), who inconveniently pokes in to remind all concerned about the Mexican and native heritage here, and to express a never-ending sorrow over the loss of cultural independence.

It’s a heady mix of characters, placed in a really fun rustic setting (David Mauer) full of native plants, wrought-iron garden furniture and funky tree stumps to sit on, with a pathetic, desiccated vineyard representing the anemic, untended land. I found myself chuckling constantly at the ridiculous pretentiousness of this gaggle of incompetents who despite their vaunted interest in native species, simply will not listen to the native voices all around them trying to guide them back to solvency.

Species is performed in English with a liberal sprinkling of español, translated where helpful. Eli Gonda directs with a sly, deft touch that throws unconventional light (John Epstein’s design) on themes of culture, family, land, labor and loss. Although conventional in construction, the play does include “magical realist” scenes, but is quite up to date in the way it frames these basic issues now, alas, in Trump’s America. If we find ourselves at a nodal stage in our historical development, which forces will win out? It’s a fine work both comedic and wise, and not only for our moment.

Species Native to California is an IAMA Theatre Company production, running through June 11, with performances on Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 7 pm (dark Sun., May 28). The Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave. in Los Angeles 90039. On-site parking a couple of hundred steps south of the theater is free. For reservations and information, call (323) 380-8843 or go to www.iamatheatre.com.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.