ASR Theater ~~ RVP’s Slapstick “Native Gardens” Tackles Class, Identity, Race, & Boundaries

By Woody Weingarten

Pride & Prejudice — the Musical, the Ross Valley Players’ last show, may have set too high a bar for Native Gardens, the theater’s current offering at The Barn in Ross, to equal.

Although this comedy of errors tackles class, identity, race, the American dream, and (both metaphorically and literally) boundaries, it’s funny and thereby compelling only sporadically — except for the final 20 of the 90-minute show when the slapstick becomes consistently hilarious.

…outstanding, and in effect becoming a character, is the marvelous, flower-filled set design…

Karen Zacarías’ play is all about a garden in an upscale Washington, DC neighborhood that’s blooming with colorful, non-native flora, and a property line argument that quickly blossoms between two next-door couples: an older, white, entitled Republic pair and an upwardly mobile millennial duo of color.

Steve Price is Frank Butley, who’s been meticulously cultivating his backyard garden forever and who desperately covets the Potomac Horticultural Society’s first prize (he’s previously had to settle for honorable mentions). His physical comedy consistently draws laughs, as do his squeaks, squeals, grunts, groans, and ultra-loud outbursts.

Steve Price as Frank Butley; Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez as Pablo Del Valle; Jannely Calmell as Tania Del Valle at RVP. Photos by Robin Jackson

Also outstanding, and in effect becoming a character, is the marvelous, flower-filled set design by Malcolm Rodgers, who just happens to be married to the play’s director, Mary Ann Rodgers. In the program’s notes, she explains that Zacarías stages “our defensive urge to categorize others” while ensuring that no one in the play “comes out smelling like a rose.”

Each of the other principals squeeze whatever they can from their roles — Jannely Calmell as Tania Del Valle, a pregnant, PhD-seeking Mexican-American who tries to keep her cool but works herself into a full-fledged rage cursing in Spanish; Ellen Brooks as Virginia Butley, an elitist engineer who ties herself to a chair with a chain as a desperation protest; and Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez as Pablo Del Valle, a rising attorney born in Chile with a proverbial silver spoon, who gets caught up in monetizing the disputed strip of land at $38,000. The actors’ joint problem is that the 2016 script, which often feels like a dozen sitcoms everyone’s seen recently, is light-hearted but heavy-handed.

As for the contrived storyline, the Del Valles are pressed into fixing up their yard because Pablo has impulsively invited his entire law firm to a barbecue while the inside of the house is unusable because the Georgetown students who’d rented it had let it go to seed, so to speak. Instant crisis! Instant squabble!

Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez as Pablo Del Valle; Jannely Calmell as Tania Del Valle in “Native Gardens”

Frank — who bemoans what he’s already lost (“Oh, God, I do miss smoking…and white rice…and Cat Stevens”) — is outraged about the entire situation, particularly because it means major changes the day before the horticultural judges are slated to be there to start judging.

Much of the discussion revolves around plants native to the D.C. region and helpful to the ecosystem vs. those that aren’t “natural” but look pretty (as well as whether an oak is beneficial or a bother). Now and then, the neighbors’ fight substitutes flowers for something slightly more odious, such as whether Frank’s non-native flora are “immigrants” or “colonists.”

Meanwhile, all the protagonists are put off by the possibility of the verbal fight becoming a legal one involving the principal of “adverse possession” — more commonly known as “squatter’s rights.”


ASR Senior Contributor Woody Weingarten has decades of experience writing arts and entertainment reviews and features. A member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle,  he is the  author of three books, The Roving I; Grampy and His Fairyzona Playmatesand Rollercoaster: How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer. Contact: or or

ProductionNative Gardens
Written byKaren Zacarías
Directed byMary Ann Rodgers
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru June 11th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
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