Creative and Beautiful Staging Can’t Save Poorly Written Source Material

Review of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Written by Elyssa Matute during an Arts Criticism workshop at Evergreen High School

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I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was a play doomed from its conception. The original novel, written by Erika L. Sánchez, boasts one of the most narcissistic and unlikable protagonists in its genre, Julia Reyes. Following her life after her sister’s death and her mission to prove that she wasn’t as perfect as her controlling and old-fashioned parents seemed to think she was. The novel flounders its pacing with too many poorly timed climaxes and a long, droning first act, along with many extremely on-the-nose lines. I appreciate their attempts to portray characters that were already lacking in depth and cutting scenes that deserved to be cut. However, playwright Isaac Gomez and director Juliette Carrillo overshadow the few moments of clarity and well-written scenes by the sheer crudeness and immaturity of the rest of the production. However, the creative team certainly succeeded in making this mess of a story genuinely a sight to behold with its accurate costumes, excellent sound design, minimal stage and props, some genuinely impressive and creative directional choices, and beautiful lighting.

The talented cast aptly captures each character, so much so that one can almost believe they are truly that insufferable in their day-to-day lives. Vocal coach Kate Myre did a fantastic job in guiding Karen Rodriguez’s voice to be as crass and annoying as possible, making Julia sound more like a caricature of a high school girl rather than a real person. Which is accurate to the novel, to be frank. Her monologues are especially irritating. And this sometimes leads to sad or serious moments coming across as more comedic than anything, such as any moments where Julia is crying. Each “joke” from Julia’s mouth is delivered with an embarrassingly screechy tone. Most of the time, the punchline is simply a curse word or a crude phrase, and sometimes not even words but just a juvenile scream.

Moving onto more visual aspects of the play, one of the successes it manages to achieve is the costumes, lighting, sound design, and choreography. I have to ask if costume designer Danielle Nieves just walked into my own home and took some of my family’s clothes, as every outfit excels in accuracy, not only staying true to the novel but perfectly capturing the fashion choices made by the average Hispanic family. The lighting is another truly amazing spectacle, lighting designer Robert Aguilar blew me away with the dark reds and blues, the spotlights and moments of absolute darkness gave me chills, and coined with sound designer and composer John Nobori’s swelling instrumentals, booming effects, and subtle musical cues, each moment felt atmospherically dense. I can’t leave out the choreography of Isaac Gomez either, despite choosing an awful book to adapt, the dancing certainly wasn’t a disappointment.

Keeping up with the praise, the directional choices Gomez and Carrillo took with bringing such a shallow book to life were a welcome surprise. Their use of Olga’s character despite being dead was chilling and interesting. It gives more of Olga to explore, more to contemplate and analyze. It’s well deserved after how her character was never given much personality or voice in the book, ironic considering she is the titular character.

The play handled its triggering material quite well, not making any jokes or censoring the horrific experiences of the characters, showing it all with clever and respectful effects. However, despite great direction, I cannot in good faith leave out one of my least favorite changes made to the story: the ending While visually aesthetically pleasing and creative, Julia’s ending monologue elevates the harm Julia’s parents have done, resulting in Olga acting as a scapegoat for her parents.

In all its flaws and improvements, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter ultimately cannot overcome its original source material. Every joke, monologue, and conversation falls flat, and its few moments of legitimately good writing are either poorly timed or completely overshadowed. Despite my criticisms, I can’t deny the impact of both the novel and the play. Many of my peers truly enjoyed it, and I won’t fault them for that. Perhaps they saw something in it that I didn’t see. I must give credit where credit is due-- the relationship between Julia and her parents is scarily accurate. I even found myself relating to Julia throughout, and I imagine that’s why Gomez and Carrillo felt the need to adapt Sanchez’s work to the stage. They finally saw something that accurately portrays the feelings of a Latino child born to immigrant parents living in the states with the struggles of expectations and generational trauma, leaving out none of the heartache and tragedies that come with it. However, I have to be honest, as well as fair. A story may be accurate, but that does not mean it is necessarily well-written or enjoyable.

Lead photo credit: Members of the cast of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter at Seattle Rep. Photo by Nate Watters.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

This review was written as part of an Arts Criticism workshop at Evergreen High School in Emily Acquino's Language Arts classes, taught by Press Corps teaching artists Beth Pollack and Marquicia Dominguez.

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