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Harrowing Journey

Borderlands' 'No Roosters in the Desert' has flaws, but in the end, the audience relates to the characters

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It's the silver anniversary of the uniquely Tucson Borderlands Theater, and to kick off the 25th season, the group has chosen a new play by Kara Hartzler, Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert.

The script embodies two of the theater's defining passions: producing new plays, and presenting works which explore the diverse populations/cultures and the unique issues of our lives on the border.

Borderlands' heart is always in the right place, and although this show is characteristically well-intentioned, Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert is a flawed production of a flawed piece. However, there is enough thoughtful content and genuine heart to engage the audience's interest and earn our respect.

Playwright Hartzler, an immigration lawyer working with migrant women held in Eloy and Florence, based her play on the research of Anna Ochoa O'Leary, a University of Arizona professor of Mexican-American studies. Ochoa O'Leary, as a Fulbright scholar, interviewed more than 100 women at Albergue San Juan Bosco, a shelter just south of Arizona's border in Sonora. The women had been captured in Arizona and returned to Mexico.

The idea of giving voice to women migrants is appealing and noble. In Hartzler's play, we witness four women trekking though the Arizona desert on a mission to escape the hardships of their lives and to find a pot of honey in their utopian vision of the United States. One, Marcela (Eva Zorrilla Tessler), who has made the trip before, becomes the de facto leader. She and Alejandra (Anel Schmidt), Guadalupe (Annabelle Nunez) and Luisa (Veronica del Cerro) hike, talk, bicker and tease. They nurse sprained ankles and horribly blistered feet. They recall their lives at home, their children, their desperation. There's no truly discernable or overarching conflict other than the minute-to-minute hardships and dangers inherent in an illegal and clandestine trek through an unfriendly landscape. Even these issues are portrayed in a fairly tame and manageable way. If you crave conflict and catharsis in your theater fare, this show will not excite.

Rather, the play is loose and circuitous. It moves back and forth in time and place, and the main action is supplemented with scenes in which the travelers, after they have been detained, are being interviewed in various locales, with the actors also assuming the roles of the interviewers.

The tale also at times demonstrates a dreamlike or ephemeral style. In what are probably the most mesmerizing moments of the production, del Cerro as Luisa captivates us with stories of a headless woman whose head rolls around eating ashes at night; of a woman who makes tamales stuffed with her husband's penis; of a woman who can shed her skin and fly into the night as white bones. Another lovely and effective element is the skillful work of musician Rebeca Cartes, who accompanies, punctuates and helps set the tone of the action with expert use of guitar, panpipes and percussion.

There's nothing wrong with an alternative style of theatrical storytelling, which can be quite effective if handled well. The problem here is that there is a stated conflict: The title of the play refers to it. The "roosters" reference, reiterated early in the play, involves the biblical account of the night before Jesus' crucifixion. Peter, one of the disciples, swears that he will not desert or betray his teacher and friend by refusing to acknowledge their association. But Jesus contests Peter's promise, asserting that Peter will indeed betray him three times before the rooster crows the next morning.

So, as these four pilgrims negotiate their way in a strange and hostile land, they speak of loyalty and give a cursory consideration of the extreme consequences should they opt to stay with a wounded companion: almost certain defeat in their goal of crossing into the promised land, or the awful fate of dying a horrible death, alone, deserted, far from home.

Eventually, events do demand that choices be made. But this conflict never really filters through the story's other aspects. We are robbed dramatically of the impact of our crossers' struggle with what has been declared as the central issue that drives the story. It's just not developed enough within the script, and director Barclay Goldsmith isn't able to punch up what is there. The pace plods, and although we are willing to attach ourselves to these women, our connection is much more fragile than it needs to be for a fully engaging experience.

A real asset of the piece is that it offers no ham-fisted political polemic. It doesn't demonize the Border Patrol. It is not a covert indictment of immigration policy. It, without intrusive and tiresome editorializing, tries to connect us with these women as they undertake their overwhelming journey, ill-informed and unprepared. Hartzler's story attempts to humanize the statistics and flesh out the frightened faces we see in news reports. It's a lot to ask of these actors, and although their characters could use some deeper development script-wise—and by the performers as well—they still touch our hearts.

Although flawed, the story appeals, not only because of the human tragedy we see represented, but because the tale evokes the universal experience of all of us who journey through life, ill-prepared, confronting hardship and seeking refuge. We not only connect with these women because we get a glance at the people behind the statistics, but because, ultimately, their journey is ours.

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