Video: ‘Native Gardens’ asks: ‘How do we live together?’

In the video above, ‘Native Gardens’ playwright Karen Zacarías and Director Lisa Portes about the DCPA Theatre Company’s current staging of Zacarías’ celebrated comedy Video by John Moore and David Lenk for the DCPA NewsCenter.

How playwright Karen Zacarías’ disarming comedy turns a conversation ender into a surprising conversation starter

Native Gardens is a play about neighbors. And “it’s a border dispute,” as Director Lisa Portes mischievously puts it.

On one side of the fence, we have Pablo and Tania Del Valle. He is a rich and rising hotshot attorney from Chile. She is a pregnant Chicana doctoral candidate. They have just moved to Washington D.C. and bought a messy fixer-upper. On the other side of the fence, we have Frank and Virginia Butley, an older, established Anglo couple with a pristine home and yard. Virginia is a conservative defense contractor, and Frank is a semi-retired GSA agent who now tends passionately to his pristine English garden.

The couples are happy to be neighbors — until the young interlopers discover they actually own 2 more feet of backyard land than previously thought. Putting a new fence along the actual property line would mean smashing through Frank’s cherished hydrangeas and peonies.

Karen Zacarias. Photo by John Moore.And from there, “shenanigans ensue,” said Portes.

“All sorts of shenanigans,” playwright Karen Zacarías echoed.

Like when the white couple decides their best legal defense in this property dispute is to argue that they have squatters’ rights. Which is funny, but might lead a reader to believe the play is either a serious political metaphor for the current ideological divide in America, or that it is a needling polemic. It is neither, said Zacarías, whose Native Gardens is presently among the 10 most produced plays in the country, with 15 professional stagings staged or scheduled. The DCPA Theatre Company’s production runs through Sunday (May 6).

“The great joy in writing this play for me was that I wanted to look at the poetry and absurdity of conflict,” Zacarías said. “To do that, I had to take a comedic angle.

“And I wrote all four of my characters from a place of love and respect.”

Because of that, Portes added, “Not only do you love each of these characters, you love them all the more because you see their foibles. None of them is perfect, and none of them are evil. They’re all just like us: Flawed and funny.”

But in this highly charged, politically divisive time, Portes admits that when you hear words like fence and borders and Latinos, “naturally you think this must be an immigration play,” she said. But it’s not. “I think this play touches on differences. There’s class differences, gender differences, differences across ethnicity, differences in philosophy, differences between Republicans and Democrats. There are all kinds of borders in this play that ultimately, by the end of the play, are transcended.

LISA PORTES QUOTE. Photo by John Moore. .And from transcendence … comedy blooms.

Aside: It’s almost impossible to talk about Native Gardens without invoking shovelfuls of gardening puns, but Zacarías could not be more on point when she says, “Nobody comes out smelling like a rose.” And: “Even though the play does dig in the dirt with some thorny issues, it does it in a disarming way. I think it’s kind of this cathartic experience for people to sit and laugh — not at them, but at ourselves. People leave the theater feeling buoyant and hopeful.”

In the end, Portes said, “The play is really asking: ‘How do we live together?’ And I think there’s no more important question to be asked at this time. And I think comedy is an invitation. When our souls are opened by laughter, I think we make room to expand ourselves.”

Native Gardens is Zacarías’ third play at the Denver Center, following world premieres of Mariela in the Desert in 2010 and Just Like Us in 2013.

Here are more highlighted excerpts from Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s conversations with Karen Zacarías and Lisa Portes:

John Moore: Karen, tell us how a dinner party changed the course of your playwriting career.

Karen Zacarías: Ah, yes. I was at a dinner party, and I was saying to some friends, “Gosh, I don’t know what to write about (next).” And so a friend tells me: “Oh, I know what you should write about. I had this fight with my neighbor” — and he went on to describe it in great detail. Then someone else says, “Oh, that’s nothing. My parents have been in a seven-year legal battle with their neighbors over a tree.” And then someone else says, “Oh, yeah? Well, someone paved over our driveway!” And we were all just laughing and laughing. But then I realized all of these neighbor stories were a metaphor for human behavior — not just in our country, but all over the world. And I thought maybe I could take an absurdist look at that and have a little fun with the idea.

Jordan Baker: ‘Hard to listen when the message is a brick’

John Moore: Lisa, tell us how your playwright managed to write a conversation starter as opposed to a conversation ender.

Lisa Portes. Photo by John Moore.

(Pictured: Lisa Portes addressing the opening-night celebration at the Denver Center. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

Lisa Portes: Karen and I believe in theater as a live space in which many different kinds of people can come together and wrestle with the issues of our time. And I think that if you want people to come together, you can’t shut anybody out. This play asks these characters to expand their circle, expand their borders and expand their sense of what’s possible in the world.

John Moore: Talk about the double entendre of the word “Native” in the title.

Karen Zacarías: There is a movement called “native gardening,” and it’s actually pretty strong here in Colorado. The idea is to plant only plants that are original to the landscape of a given area. Native plants take up less water, they’re easier to take care of, and they feed bees and bugs in that area. So native planting is lower-maintenance and better for the environment. But some people would say native plants are not as attractive as some of the more European-style gardens like Frank’s, where you might see Japanese Azaleas or plants from all over the world. And so by using the word “Native” in the title, there are a lot of things to unpack: Who was here originally? Who is a transplant? Where is it acceptable for a hybrid garden to exist? It’s a great metaphor for a lot of things that are in the news today.”

John Moore: How do the Gomez Family Landscape Technicians fit into the story?

Lisa Portes: They are the folks who are actually doing the work while everybody else is arguing over their first-world problems. They are literally changing the landscape as the play unfolds. Karen was telling me that there have been theaters around the country that have wanted to cut those characters, but you can’t make this play without them. I think the way all three families come together at the end — the Del Valles, the Butleys and the Gomezes — is Karen’s way of creating the world we want to live in.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: How great is it that actor Gustavo Marquez, who plays a member of the Gomez family, has a day job working in the Denver Center ticket office?

Lisa Portes: I think it’s going to be such a treat for the audience who may have actually bought their ticket from Gustavo to then see him in the play because he brings such beautiful life to the stage. And I’ll tell you a little secret: For the pre-show, we wanted music in Spanish having to do with gardens. So, Gustavo sent me three or four lists of songs, and we used them. I owe him special thanks for that.

John Moore: Karen, I think the most surprising part of your play may be that it has a happy ending.

Karen: I think everybody is happy that there’s a happy ending. The first draft I wrote, the ending was quite different. It was kind of gritty and ended with a gut-punch. But then I sat back and thought, ‘Do I need another gut punch right now?’ And when I asked myself, ‘What does it take to make a happy ending?’ And it’s not that hard. It takes a little understanding, a little compromise, and a lot of listening. And so I decided to go full-throttle and get the happy ending I think we all deserve.

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.

Photo gallery: The making of the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Native Gardens’

Making of 'Native Gardens'

Photos from the making of the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Native Gardens.’ To see more, click on the image above to be taken to our full Flickr gallery. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter

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 DCPA Theatre Company
  • Performances through May 6
  • Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Native Gardens:

Native Gardens cast. Photo by John MooreThe cast of the Denver Center’s ‘Native Gardens’ on opening night. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

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


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