Gunpoint xenophobia

11/14/2012 10:00 PM

Phil Morehart
Contributing Writer

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Adray (Cheryl Graeff) is held hostage in a Tijuana alley by Juana (Charin Alvarez) in Teatro Vista’s I Put the Fear of Mexico in ‘Em. Photo by Art Carrillo/Teatro Vista

Jonah (Bryn Packard) is confronted by a sketchy character (Miguel Quijada) while visiting Tijuana. Photo by Art Carrillo/Teatro Vista

I Put the Fear of Mexico in ’Em is a play that sticks with viewers, for both good and bad reasons.

The opening production of Teatro Vista’s 2012-2013 season, currently running at Chicago Dramatists, follows the supposedly serendipitous meeting between two married couples in Tijuana. One is a white, middle-class American couple on vacation (Bryn Packard and Cheryl Graeff) that veers off-the-beaten path with hopes of experiencing an authentic Mexico not itemized and outlined in travel guides. The other is a Mexican couple (Miguel Nunez and Charin Alvarez) that, well, accosts the Americans in the street for venturing off said “approved” path. The female half of the latter pair just happens to have a machine gun strapped across her chest.

In Tijuana back alleys, strip clubs and drug dens, the couples drink, fight, and reveal dark secrets about each other. Stereotypes held on both sides are exposed. As the torments progress, a link between the factions is slowly revealed. They’re both parents. And their teenage children go to the same school in a Los Angeles suburb. And they’re in love. The relationship adds a tragic Romeo and Juliet patina to the story.

At least I think that’s what happened.

I Put the Fear of Mexico in ’Em is a mess. It’s a loud production, often vulgar. It jumps around in space and time. And it’s not quite sure what it wants to say.

Playwright Matthew Paul Olmos attempts to create scenarios that expose and comment on cultural misunderstandings, apprehensions and bigotry. He almost succeeds, but “almost” doesn’t cut it in this case, however.

I Put the Fear of Mexico in ’Em negates its own mission by having one set of characters hold the other hostage at gunpoint. The act itself perpetuates the stereotype of a dangerous, lawless Mexico where gun-toting people roam the streets looking for clueless gringos to sack. And regardless of whatever personal or societal ills are extracted, they were done so at the threat of violence. Empathy is hard-earned at gunpoint. The actions remove the ironic tone from the play’s title and make it literal.

These negatives are unfortunate, as the play does have some brilliant pockets.

I Put the Fear of Mexico in ’Em is at its best when it leaves the streets of Tijuana to focus on the ancillary characters. It’s in their stories that the play’s message hits home.

The lives and fates of a young stripper turned drug mule (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) and a Tijuana policeman (Marvin Quijada) are beautifully rendered in surreal passages. Their monologues are devoid of the obviousness and crassness found in the rest of the play. They’re real. The direct simplicity is powerful.

The subplot concerning the couples’ children (alternately played by Graeff, Nunez, Gonzalez-Cadel, and Quijada) shares a similar directness. It unfolds naturally. The trajectory of innocent, teenage love and the effects of its shattering hold more insights into our collective mindset than a drunken ramble through Tijuana.

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