Imagine if Chekhov had set The Cherry Orchard in 21st-century Mendocino County and you’ve got Dorothy Fortenberry’s Species Native To California, am IAMA Theatre Company World Premiere dramedy that proves that every good story is worth a good retelling.

Vineyard owner Skip (Tom Amandes) married into land and money some three-and-a-half decades ago, and though his wife has long since departed (to India last time anyone heard from her), Skip has continued to grow grapes with his now thirty-year-old daughter Zo (Melissa Stephens), his Mexican-American political refugee housekeeper Gloria (Eileen Galindo), and Gloria’s seventeen-year-old son Victor (Tonatiuh Elizarraraz) by his side.

Sadly, years of drought and lack of care have left the vines shriveled and brittle (and Skip in serious financial debt), and so elder daughter Mara (Margaux Susi) has returned to the homestead, her wealthy dot.com boyfriend/boss Jeff (Tim Rock) in tow, to see if together they can find answers to problems Skip and Zo seem incapable of solving.

Local banker Bernie (Carlos E. Campos) has come up with an outside offer to build townhomes on the property, a solution that makes sense to Mara and Jeff but which Zo vehemently opposes. Victor, meanwhile, suggests a more home-grown solution. And as the clock ticks, decisions must be made.

Like the Chekhov original that inspired it, Species Native To California features characters of different social classes (undocumented immigrants Gloria and Victor can only aspire to what Skip and his family have as their birthright), the desire to preserve the past (Skip and Zo’s) or forge a much different future (Sara and Jeff’s), love both requited and unrequited (at least two proposals get made and rejected), society’s haves and have-nots (Mara pictures her father hounding Jeff “about being the one percent”), and the importance of a place to call home (especially for characters who are themselves species native to California).

And always, the specter of death hovers in wait in the person of La Llorona (Murielle Zuker), a Spanish conquistador’s Indian lover who, legend has it, killed their children rather than lose them to him and his royal bride.

That’s not to say that Species Native To California is all Sturm Und Drang. Like Chekhov before her, Fortenberry has written a dramatic comedy, mining laughs from non-native Jeff’s fish-out-of-water-ness, Mara’s dating the boss (Victor calls it “very Melinda Gates”), Zo’s way with a sarcastic jab (she bets that Jeff sneezes when he comes), and from unilingual Bernie’s lack of Latino identity, at least as far as Gloria is concerned.

I’m not sure that opening Species Native From California the day before the 2016 California primary and ending it the day before the presidential election adds anything in particular to the play, and those who don’t speak Spanish may find themselves occasionally at slight disadvantage, though for those who do, bilingual characters provide added sabor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Cherry Orchard fans will find particular pleasures in Fortenberry’s re-imagination of it in today’s Northern California, but there’s no need to be familiar with either Chekhov or his works to become involved with her cast of characters, brought to vivid life by Amandes, Campos, Elizarraraz, Galindo, Rock, Stephens, Susi, and Zuker under Eli Gonda’s assured direction.

Scenic designer David Mauer once again outdoes himself, seating the audience on two sides of a surround set decorated with actual species and set pieces native to California (kudos to prop manager Chris Gardner), thereby giving spectators a you-are-there experience complemented by Josh Epstein’s evocative lighting, Melissa Trn’s character-appropriate costumes, and David B. Marling’s sound design enhanced by Ross Flournoy’s mood-enhancing original music. Ahmed Best is fight director.

Species Native To California is produced by Laura Mann. Tom DeTrinis is associate producer and John Lavelle is assistant director. Amber Caras is stage manager and Megan Perez is assistant stage manager.

Understudies Alex Alcheh, Ronnie Alvarez, Melissa Center, Ryan Garcia, George Oliver Hale, Anna Lamadrid, and Emily Rowan perform on Thursday May 25.

For a company best known for in-your-face edgy fare like the series of Seven Deadly Sins plays that put IAMA on the L.A. theater map, Species Native To California represents a distinct change of pace. Kinder and gentler but no less original than Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette and Reverb or Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation, IAMA Theatre Company’s latest provides its own often magical, mystical rewards.

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Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
May 13, 2017
Photos: Dean Cechvala



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