Paradise Red is a slow-burn telenovela, set in that curious soap-opera universe where every conversation ends with a pregnancy scare, a room-shaking slap to the face, or a lamentable assignation behind the bike shed. Dialing it up even higher, Alameda sets their SummerWorks show in post-coup Chile, where the death of a patriarch — a highly-placed military official — leaves his family in political and economic decline.
What secrets lie beneath the study wallpaper? Who is pregnant with whose child? Who is this mysterious “Captain Schnauzer”? And how much further can this family fall before they hit rock bottom?
As with all soap operas, Paradise Red turns on its performances — and there’s some fine work here. This show wouldn’t be complete without Alex Muir Contreras’ dewy eyes; Rosa Laborde somehow makes blonde jokes worth hearing again; and Carmen Aguirre’s eyebrows are so expressive that they practically deserve their own billing. But the chemistry between the cast is what really dragged me into this story, especially once I realized they were swinging for the fences: this isn’t supposed to read like a family, it’s meant to read like a telenovela family, with all the quirks and distance (and deviance) this implies. If the relationships were healthy and sensible, there wouldn’t be a plot.
While I tease Aguirre about her eyebrows, this is almost entirely her show, and it’s a testament to her skill as an actress that she carries such a big character so well: wounded, abusive, proud and downtrodden; utterly dominant, yet crafty and desperate. This woman is capable of being much more than some dead general’s wife, and her children are entirely correct to fear her wrath. A skin-crawling, crackling performance.
Some of the show does feel repetitive or drawn-out: this is entirely in keeping with the telenovela style, but I think the company could have cut a solid 10-15 minutes off the runtime (advertised as 80 minutes, but they ran nearly 90 on opening night) without losing anything. Scene changes are a particular weakness, especially as they mostly seem to involve dragging chairs back and forth across the stage.
Those weaknesses notwithstanding, the ending is enough reason for me to forgive all sins. You’ll be primed to expect something. You’ll feel like you’re being led by the nose. But once it happens, you’ll see that it was inevitable — and if you thought it could end differently, perhaps you got so wrapped up in the melodrama that you forgot where you were.
Once that revelation sunk in with me, the rest of the play began to twist, convulse and reverse itself like a Jacob’s Ladder.
I can’t imagine that writer Bruce Gibbons Fell or director Mariló Núñez would have had it any other way.
Paradise Red plays through August 17th at the Lower Ossington Theatre. (100A Ossington Ave., between Queen and Dundas.)
Be aware that this show involves frank depictions of sexuality and sexual expression, and heavily-stylized depictions of physical abuse.
August 11, 2014: 9:30pm
August 12, 2014: 4:30pm
August 16, 2014: 6:30pm
August 17, 2014: 1:30pm
All individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets are available online at http://summerworks.ca, by phone at 416-907-0468, or in person at the SummerWorks Info Booth – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West) August 5th-17th from 10AM – 7PM (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee)
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows.
Photographs of Alex Muir Conteras by Peter Riddihough.