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Waiting for Something

The concept of Un Encuentro is admirable, but the plays that are part of it have their problems

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Borderlands Theater is such a wonderful idea. It's an artistic entity that focuses on new plays, and trades works from one America to the others. It fosters an emphasis on border issues in the truest sense of the word—that metaspace of unity and divergence that creates both imaginary and real lines between people, cultures and geography. The idea of Borderlands deserves support and praise.

Borderlands is currently a player in a process called Un Encuentro: Theater of and for the Borderlands, which is taking place over several months. It is bringing theater artists from Mexico and the U.S. together for "a series of meetings, readings and rehearsals," according to Borderlands producing director Barclay Goldsmith. This transnational encounter is permitting playwrights, directors and performers to share and reflect upon their work as theater artists residing in different places, and how to translate that work into meaningful experiences for their diverse audiences. The U.S. portion of the festival is happening in Tucson right now, and involves the presentation of two plays commissioned and developed for production in both Mexico City, at el Circulo Teatral, and in Tucson. Borderlands is also offering readings of four additional playwrights, two of whom are from Arizona.

The duo of new plays developed as part of Un Encuentro are Maria's Circular Dance, by Medardo Treviño, and Trash, by Kara Hartzler. Trevino, from Mexico, is a prolific writer of books and plays and has been recognized with numerous awards. Hartzler, who lives in San Diego, has an MFA in playwriting from the University of Iowa and works as a federal public defender. She is the author of No Roosters in the Desert, which Borderlands produced in a previous season and is based on interviews with migrant women at a shelter on the border.

Borderlands surely deserves support and praise. But sometimes "between the idea and the reality," to borrow from T.S. Eliot, "falls the shadow." The results of Borderlands' efforts to turn its impressive ideals into powerful theater often fall into that shadow, and the productions don't sing with the clarity of voice the entity intends.

Such is the case with both of these new plays. Neither is easy in subject or style, and although Trash is much more accessible, each stumbles for various reasons.

Borderlands associate artistic director Eva Tessler directed as well as translated Maria's Circular Dance. It's set in a run-down room, where Angelito (Eric Aviles) and Maria (Carmen Garcia) are waiting for—something. Angelito is a harsh and guilt-ravaged Mexican somehow connected with the drug trade. Maria is on her way from Colombia to Texas to look for her young son. They were on a bus together, but were waylaid, along with other buses full of Central and South American immigrants who are being systematically slaughtered, it seems.

The reason I say "waiting for something" and "somehow connected" is that the specifics are unclear. There are hints that lead you to finally realize that they are involved in the first San Fernando massacre in 2010 in Tamaulipas, but if you are not familiar with that horrid event, an annoying confusion begins to block your patience with what's going on.

This is complicated by the play's style, which takes the characters in and out of dreams and delusions and memories as they deal with each other, and it is unclear when exactly these episodes are happening and who the characters represent as they assume roles within these moments. And then there is the issue of the characters' names—Angelito and Maria—which suggest a sort of symbolism but is never fully clear.

I'm not sure if the root of this confusion lies in the play or in the translation, but I am sure that a lot of our confusion is due to a lack of directorial clarity. We should be able to understand who these characters are, as well as their evolving relationship and their histories as they dream and remember, much better than we do.

Further complicating our ability—and, ultimately, our willingness—to take all this in is that Tessler has her actors at full throttle from the very beginning. The intensity of whatever thoughts or emotions are dictating their actions puts us in such high anxiety that there's no room to breathe, to move to a greater level of tension and to involve ourselves further. Our confusion about what's happening, and the intensity with which it happens, wear us out. And that's really a shame.

Trash is a much more accessible piece. Aviles is Elizardo, a prisoner for his actions with a Mexican drug cartel, who expects protection for being an informant. He is a maintenance worker, cleaning offices and emptying the trash in the prison. Garcia is Officer Castillo, who has developed a curious relationship with Elizardo, which is at a turning point.

The toll of the drug trade obviously connects these pieces. But Hartzler's piece also poses the issue of identity: In which culture do you belong? How much say does one actually have? Hartzler's hand is a bit too heavy with the symbolic trash that Elizardo empties from the containers at each desk. Director Marc David Pinate styles the short play as a No Exit-like piece of theater of the absurd, although he gets a bit lost now and then, particularly with his inclusion of a recorded laugh track.

There are problems that prevent a complete embrace of, and appreciation for, these pieces. But the ideals of Borderlands are unimpeachable.

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