By Charles Brousse
In fiction, nonfiction and the visual media, the misery that illegal Latin-American immigrants experience as they journey north hoping to exchange the corruption, persecution and poverty in their own countries for the fabled good life of the American Dream has been well-documented. Dangers lurk everywhere: Robbers and rapists, corrupt government officials, exploitative employers, brutal police and the ultimate calamity—predatory guides (the infamous ‘coyotes’) who take whatever remains of their money to smuggle them safely across the U.S. border, but then abandon them halfway to their destination. All of these were vividly captured in the 1983 low-budget film, El Norte.
Although Karen Zacarias’ Into the Beautiful North, which closes Berkeley’s Central Works 2015-2016 season as part of a four-theater “Rolling World Premiere” sponsored by the National New Play Network, has equally grim content, there is a huge difference in the way it’s presented. Based on the popular 2009 novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea, it manages to take the disheartening raw material and, through the alchemy of inspired satire, turn it into a laugh-filled theatrical experience. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one of the best efforts by the London comedy gang, did something similar with its cinematic treatment of the medieval Christian Crusades, but this Urrea/Zacarias collaboration, inventively staged by Central Works’ co-director Gary Graves, has the added merit of never allowing the humor to blind us to the plight of characters who are more than just two-dimensional comic creations.
The play begins in La Mano Caida (‘The Fallen Hand’), a taco joint located in the sleepy town of Tres Camarones (‘Three Shrimps’), Sinaloa State, Mexico. At a time when the mayor and its sole police officer (both suspected of corruption) have abandoned their posts for better prospects, the remaining villagers, already disheartened by fears that their only cinema is about to shut down, are further alarmed when a couple of sinister-looking members of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel, drop by and immediately start pushing people around. Could this mean that poor little Tres Camarones could become a trafficking center? It seems likely, but just when panic sets in, a couple of strong women vow to save the community they love.
Irma, a no-nonsense local activist (vibrantly portrayed by Leticia Duarte), announces that she’ll run for mayor in the upcoming election, and her spunky, martial-arts-savvy young niece, Nayeli (Samanta Yunuen Cubias) comes up with a plan to avoid the looming catastrophe. Inspired by having seen the Hollywood movie The Magnificent Seven, she says she’ll travel to el norte and bring back her sharpshooter father (who has deserted his family), along with a band of ‘magnificent’ gun-slinging Mexican-Americans, to defend the town. Accompanied by close friends Tacho (Rudy Guerrero) and Vampi (Kitty Torres)—later joined by an intrepid would-be samurai nicknamed Atomiko (Caleb Cabrera), she sets out on a journey that takes her to Tijuana, San Diego, Kankakee, Illinois and back again.
There isn’t space in this review to describe their adventures, good and bad, except to say that they lead to a heart-warming conclusion. Besides the fine performances by everyone in the eight-member ensemble, several of whom have multiple roles, the most noteworthy aspect of the play is Zacarias’ skillful use of a classic story theater technique—intermittent narration by one or another character to smooth over transitions of place and time—that are easy to manage in a novel, but extremely challenging on stage. Graves’ direction of what Zacarias calls “three-dimensional literature” draws upon the actors’ talents to turn Central Works’ tiny undecorated venue at the Berkeley City Club into a vast “theater of the mind” that makes each part of the journey palpable.
Into the Beautiful North will leave you saddened, entertained and moved. What more can you ask for?
NOW PLAYING: Into the Beautiful North runs through November 13 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley; 510/558-1381; berkeleycityclub.com.