Photos, cast list: 'Native Gardens' draws line in the soil

Making of 'Native Gardens'Above: Our full photo gallery from the making of the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Native Gardens,’ starting with last week’s first rehearsal. To see more, click on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter

Karen Zacarías’ popular comedy takes a lighter approach to the concept of a border war — with your next-door neighbor

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

“Who here has a neighbor?” Director Lisa Portes asked the cast, creatives, ambassadors and staff gathered for a festive first day of rehearsal for the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Native Gardens. And when she further queried, “Who here has had a dispute with a neighbor?” and, “How many of those disputes have had to do with land or noise?” — not many of the many raised hands fell.   

Karen Zacarías‘ celebrated play is the story of a young Latino couple that moves into a fixer-upper next to an older couple with a beautifully kept garden. All goes well until the aristocratic young Chileans discover their property line actually extends about 2 feet over their neighbors’ existing flowerbed.

“We all hope we get along with our neighbors,” Portes said. But where there is a property line, there tends to be a line in the sand.

Native Gardens is a comedy, “but it’s a sneaky comedy,” Portes added, “because suddenly there is this border dispute, and within that there is all kinds of conflict  — generational, ethnic, gender and class. And eventually these two couples really have to contend with one another.”

Portes, who primarily tackles new plays and musicals, serves on the board of Theatre Communications Group, heads the MFA directing program at DePaul University and has directed at dozens of theatres around the country. Her cast includes Broadway veterans Jordan Baker (The Normal Heart) and John Ahlin (Journey’s End), as well as Mariana Fernández, who two years ago starred the DCPA Theatre Company’s FADE.

‘Native Gardens’ has its first performance April 6 in the Space Theatre. Here are five fun facts we learned at first rehearsal:

Lisa Portes quote Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.


The world goes round. Although Zacarías’ play has been produced around the country since 2016, Portes is calling this the play’s “world premiere production in the round.” The Space is a five-sided theatre with the stage in the middle. In every previous staging, the audience has watched the story in a traditional theatre setting with an invisible fourth wall separating them from the actors on the stage. “That means the audience is examining this dispute from a safe distance,” Portes said. “But in this production, the stage floor is the actual garden, and the fence separating the two houses runs right through the middle of the stage. And so depending on where your seat is, you will be sitting on one side of the fence or the other. That means you are a part of this dispute. And we’re interested to see how that physical relationship you have with one side or the other plays out in your terms of your allegiances.”  

NUMBER 2RAQUEL BARRETO Expect the unexpected. If Costume Designer Raquel Barreto has one wish for how the audience feels when they walk into the Space Theatre, she said, “It’s they don’t encounter a preconceived set of characters” when the play begins. Meaning they should not be so easily pegged based on their appearance — or your presupposition. “This is a play that is as much about about cultural and ethnic perceptions as it is about generational differences, and so I would love it if people’s expectations of having a Latino or a foolish older American neighbor are not met,” she said. “We have a chance to present the audience with characters who are funny but at the same time have some layers to them. I may strongly disagree with my neighbor’s politics and still love the scarf that she is wearing.” 

NUMBER 3 Is that a typo? Questions about the recent rise of the term “Latinx” (pronounced “Latin X”) have come up on a regular basis all season, and they came up again on the first day of rehearsal. They even come up in  Zacarías’ script. It’s not a term the older white couple in the story have ever heard of — and they are not alone. So, a refresher: Latinx has become widely embraced among scholars, community leaders and journalists as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina.  According to The Huffington Post, Latinx is part of a “linguistic revolution” that aims to move beyond gender binaries and is inclusive of the intersecting identities of Latin American descendants. In addition to men and women from all racial backgrounds, Latinx also makes room for people who are trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender non-conforming or gender fluid.

Just Like Us makes the political personal … and entertaining

NUMBER 4Speaking of … Zacarías, who also wrote the DCPA Theatre Company’s Just Like Us in 2014, and Portes were among the “DC-8” who started a national movement called The Latinx Theatre Commons in 2012 to amplify the visibility of Latinx theatre in the United States. Since then, Portes has directed the world premiere of Antoinette Nwandu’s Breach, a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate in Chicago, as well as an all-Latinx version of The Glass Menagerie for Cal Shakes in northern California.  Zacarias last month launched a high-profile staging for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival called Destiny of Desire, a subversive homage to telenovelas, which she calls “one of the most exported forms of entertainment in the world.”

NUMBER 5Small world. Next door to the Space Theatre, Off-Center is preparing to stage  This is Modern Art in The Jones Theatre. That story explores an  incident when a graffiti crew created a massive tag on the outside of the Art Institute of Chicago’s new, multimillion-dollar Modern Wing. The world-premiere of the play was staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2015, and it went down as among the most controversial stagings of the past decade. And it debuted under the direction of none other than …. Lisa Portes. “Idris is a wildly imaginative thinker,” Portes said of co-writer (and Off-Center director) Idris Goodwin. ” He knows the necessity of traditional structure well, and he also pushes against it in order to get to something else. “This is Modern Art follows a pretty traditional structure, but its content is quite subversive.” READ MORE

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Native Gardens:
Cast and creatives

  • Written by Karen Zacarías 
  • Directed by Lisa Portes
  • Scenic Designer: Lisa M. Orzolek
  • Costume Designer: Raquel Barreto
  • Lighting Designer: Charles R. MacLeod
  • Sound Designer: Rick Sims
  • Dramaturg: Douglas Langworthy
  • Stage manager: Heidi Echtenkamp
  • Kailey Buttrick: Assistant Stage Manager  


  • John Ahlin (Broadway’s Tony-Award winning revival of Journey’s End) as Frank Butley
  • Jordan Baker (Broadway’s Suddenly, Last Summer, The Normal Heart) as Virginia Butley
  • Mariana Fernández (DCPA’s FADE) as Tania Del Valle
  • Ryan Garbayo (Red Bull Theater’s The Government Inspector Off-Broadway) as Pablo Del Valle.
  • Anthony V. Haro (University of Northern Colorado Opera’s La Cenerentola), Ensemble
  • Brandon Lopez (Lucent Performing Arts’ American Idiot), Ensemble
  • Gustavo Marquez (Colorado Shakespeare Education’s Comedy of Errors), Ensemble
  • Gia Valverde (Su Teatro’s Enrique’s Journey), Ensemble

Native Gardens
: Ticket information

NativeGardens_show_thumbnail_160x160Dealing with neighbors can be thorny, especially for Pablo and Tania, a young Latino couple who have just moved into a well-established D.C. neighborhood. Though Frank and Virgina have the best intentions for making the new couple feel welcome next door, their newly budding friendship is tested when they realize their shared property line isn’t where it’s supposed to be. Frank is afraid of losing his prized garden, Pablo wants what is legally his, Tania has a pregnancy and a thesis she’d rather be worrying about, and Virginia just wants some peace. But until they address the real roots of their problems, it’s all-out war in this heartfelt play about the lines that divide us and those that connect us.

  • Presented by Off-Center
  • Performances April 6-May 6
  • Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

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