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A road well traveled

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

SD Rep infuses local themes and gay characters

Playing now through April 23 at San Diego Repertory Theatre is Karen Zacharías’ play, “Into the Beautiful North,” based on the novel by San Diego State grad and literary luminary Luis Alberto Urrea (b. 1955 in Tijuana).

The comedy is set in many places familiar to those who know both sides of the border and features an appealing gay character, Tacho, who runs a taco shop and internet café called La Mano Caída (The Fallen Hand) in Tres Camarones (Three Shrimp), a small village in Sinaloa.

(l to r) Bryant Hernandez (who plays the gay owner of a taco shop), Kenia Ramirez, Jennifer Paredes (Photo by Daren Scott)

Tacho could easily be played as a gay stereotype but in Hernandez’s hands he has depth, humanity, and when push comes to shove, practicality of nature.

One of Tacho’s employees and his best friend is 19-year-old Nayeli (Kenia Ramirez) whose father, like most of the men in Tres Camarones, has fled to the “beautiful north” to work. This leaves the women of the village undefended from the bandidos who threaten to take over the territory and the women.

(l to r) Jorge Rodriguez, Jennifer Paredes, Kenia Ramirez in a scene from “Into the Beautiful North” (Photo by Daren Scott)

Those threatened are Nayeli; her Goth, ukulele-strumming girlfriend, Vampi (Jennifer Parades); and her no-nonsense aunt Irma (Catalina Maynard), who is the town’s first female mayor.

A screening of “The Magnificent Seven” at the local cinema inspires Nayeli, who sets off to find her father and recruit her own magnificent seven; Sinaloan men willing to return south of the border to defend them. Vampi and Tacho accompany Nayeli on a road trip that stretches from Tres Camarones to the Tijuana dumps to suburban Kankakee, Illinois, and The Bahia Hotel in San Diego.

Jorge Rodriguez, Herbert Siguenza, Kavi Moreno and Javier Guerrero play all the border agents, coyotes and decent people the trio meets along the way, with the handsome Rodriguez scoring as Atomiko, the warrior of the Tijuana garbage dump.

However much we love the character, Atomiko’s shtick risks going over the border. Thanks to Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse, he does not. Rodriguez is also funny as Johnny Depp, Nayeli’s recurring fantasy. Some of the best, most poignant scenes in the play are those that involve Siguenza and Maynard as former lovers.

Jennifer Brawn-Gittings’ spot-on costumes enhance these characters mightily, with assistance from Michael Roth’s appropriate original music and soundscape, Ian Wallace’s bare-bones scenic design and projections, and Lonnie Alcaraz’s lighting.

Perhaps because of the musical numbers sprinkled throughout the show, sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood mics some, if not all, of the company. This enhances understanding of the spoken word considerably.

And yet, one cannot help but feel something is missing amid all the miles covered and all the character encountered.

I felt the length of the road trip; that we would never get there, wherever there is. Chalk it up to a lack of dramaturgical urgency, a certain lack of compelling charisma in Ramirez (was she merely fatigued?), to the difficulty of transferring narrative, descriptive fiction to drama.

The same dis-ease or feeling that something is lacking has plagued several like endeavors, great and gripping as their literary foundations are.

Urrea’s endearing book is a great favorite of many people (he’s written 16 books with another forthcoming soon), and his life story is almost as gripping as his prose and characters. Currently, he is distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Also having premiered in Portland, Oregon, Berkeley, California, and Berwyn, Illinois, “Into the Beautiful North” is the 57th rolling world premiere underwritten by the National New Play Network.

— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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