A scene from ‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’ at Main Street Theater in Houston
Photo: Ricornel Productions
Gorgeous and sassy, just divorced Aunt Julia has arrived in the city of Lima from Bolivia, and she sure knows how to shake things up.
With a set that reminds us of the great age of radio and the subsequent 50s and 60s and an irresistible cast, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” is a romantic comedy based on the novel by Latin American Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Lighthearted and fun, it evokes a glamor and sense of anticipation that you don’t see every day on the stage. I’ll take it.
Just a little caveat: the charm quotient is high, and this comedy might be just the thing to lift your spirits after years of COVID-19 and recent heartbreaking news. This is a play about love—love of writing, love of performing, and the love of being swept up and infatuated, no matter what society thinks.
Written by Caridad Svich and directed by Amelia Rico, there are several dramas going on here, and it is entertaining to watch these plates spinning in the air. The efficient set design (Jacob Sanchez) takes us from a domestic dining room to a fancy restaurant, to a radio station that plays dramas that were the precursors to those addictive TV soaps that we still watch today. The balcony is also a convenient venue for heart-to-heart talks between two friends.
The suits and dresses of the time period are gorgeous (thanks to Laura Moreno), and I say bring back the 1950s dresses that had petticoats and current color! You will be forced to collect a time when people actually dressed up before leaving the house, and it is so fun to see these fashions roll out with each costume change, whether it be a lavender cocktail dress, an ivory and rhinestone evening get-up , or a jet black number with crimson roses.
Playwright Svich cleverly makes the play itself a comedic melodrama that somewhat parallels the dramatic stories fueled by Aunt Julia’s presence in Lima. The narratives are not the same, but the high octane drama and romance are the common denominators, and the fun of the play is watching the actors inhabit these comedic roles so enthusiastically.
The play is like the satirized soap operas of the day: Will Mario fall in love with the older “Aunt” Julia? Will Mario become a lawyer or a script writer? Will Pedro Camacho be his mentor? Will Josephina and Genaro be able to keep the radio melodramas on track? Will Aunt Julia marry or head back to Bolivia? You know: the usual. The radio dramas are funny, and although I kind of lost the thread for some of those numbers, it didn’t matter, because the fun is watching the necessarily and intentionally over-the-top performances by the actors reaching their loyal listeners over those radio waves.
The reason to see this play is the ensemble cast: They are so vibrant, I would watch them read the phonebook. (That era is gone too—but you get the gist). Michael L. Benitez and Marissa Castillo are endearing as the married couple Lucho and Olga. Son Mario, played by the superb Ricardo Hernandez-Morgan, has writing ambitions and a desire for Aunt Julia that fuels the plot.
where: Main Street Theater 2540 Times Blvd.
when: Through June 12
Details: $10-$49; 713 524-6706; mainstreettheater.com
Armando Gonzales plays fascinating as the famous writer Pedro Camacho, who actually gets funnier as the play progresses.
Amanda Martinez is stellar as the glamorous Aunt Julia, who is not only beautiful, but quick with a comeback and engaging throughout. She swings back and forth between a conventional world view and a kind of risky feminism that speaks volumes about the changing roles of women in the 20th century, but in a comedic way. Adriane Miller as Josefina is comedy gold with her flirtatious manipulations and radio performances, and the physicality of her delivery of her is a marvel to watch.
This play is hard to perform: it edges up to screwball comedy, and that can so easily go off the rails. Instead, the romance, comedy, and satire all blend together with strong performances from all that are enjoyable from beginning to end.
Doni Wilson is a Houston-based writer.