If Tres Camarones (“three shrimp”) actually existed, the small fishing village would be about 35 miles south of Mazatlan on the Gulf of California. According to Into the Beautiful North — Karen Zacharias’s new play based on Luis Alberto Urrea’s wonderful novel — almost all the men left to seek their fortunes in the U.S. Of the few that remain, Tacho, who runs a cantina, is gay, and Garcia-Garcia, spent at age 65, operates the only movie house. He can only show a film for two days. After that the town runs out of paying customers.
A corrupt state narco and a scar-faced drug dealer decide to make Tres Camarones their new headquarters. What to do? How to stop the bandits from destroying the village? A screening of The Magnificent Seven gives young Nayeli an inspiration. She, the bravely flamboyant Tacho, and Vampi (a gleefully nihilistic Goth) will cross the border “into the beautiful north.” They will interview men from Mexico, preferably cops and soldiers, who want to come back.
“We are going,” Nayeli shouts with conviction, “to bring home the Magnificent Seven.”
Nayeli will also seek her father. He’s in Kankakee, Illinois. He’s doing well, he wrote, though “everything passes.” What follows is a Latino Wizard of Oz, set in 2008. The quest is as arduous, if not more, than the movie, and Oz is America, but seen for the first time.
Along the way the trio picks up Kiko at the Tijuana dump. Ex-military and “baddest of the trash pickers,” he’s the opposite of the Cowardly Lion. He’s so macho, he’s convinced he’s a comic strip hero — Atomiko — in need of a cause. Don Quixote streams through his DNA.
The quartet has adventures: some funny (as when they see a lawn with sprinklers and Nayeli discovers that “The United States has grass!”; or when Atomiko learns he can wash his hands in steaming hot water); some horrific, on both sides of the border; some mystical, as when snow falls on Nayeli and Atomiko for the first time.
Now for the obligatory “it ain’t the book” paragraph. Born in TJ, Urrea grew up in San Diego (studied writing at UCSD), and has a keener-than-most novelist’s eye for both sides of the border. In page after page, he describes everyday sights and locations through fresh eyes — always revealing something new about places you thought you knew, be it Colonia Libertad, site of most border crossings, or Clairemont (where everything “went in circles, from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac, with those dead palm trees above your head, and you never found a way out”).
The Magnificent Seven spends at least the first 45 minutes rounding up the band. The novel spends that much time in Tres Camarones. It delineates the characters, local politics, dreams, and illusions. By the time Nayeli and the others set out for the U.S., Urrea makes the town and the quest matter a great deal.
Theater’s constraints make the play cover ground quicker, but in fits and starts. If the novel were a trip from San Diego to Escondido, it would go up I-5, check out the flat mesas and low lagoons to the west, like riding a slow roller-coaster. Then it would head east up Lomas Santa Fe Drive, tour Rancho Santa Fe and Lake Hodges, and enjoy the sights and three or four geographical changes along the way. The play just zooms north on I-15.
The script has issues with tone. In the book, the courageous quartet crosses the border twice: under a fence and through a tunnel. They’re harassed and deprived at almost every step, and their success is often in serious doubt (homophobia tracks gay Tacho, for example, wherever he goes). But the play, which omits several characters, prefers the comic to the potentially tragic.
Into the Beautiful North is part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” series. It opens in several cities around the same time. I’d be curious to see the others, because I suspect they couldn’t top the San Diego Rep’s version.
Michael Roth’s original score makes it a musical or, more accurately, a play with music. Ardent, Latino-inflected songs shoot energy into a sometimes flagging pace. Roth’s soundscape and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design add dimension to Ian Wallace’s functional set: adobe walls, with the tiara-like suggestion of Tres Camarones’ only remaining church. A stage-within-the-stage includes a rear screen, where Wallace’s projections add realistic touches. A turntable, cacti sliding by, rows of chairs coming and going, add comic touches.
A fine ensemble cast directed by Sam Woodhouse gives the piece the best possible chance. It would be near impossible to go wrong with Jennifer Paredes (one of SD’s most in-demand actors) as defiant Vampi; Jorge Rodriguez as fearsome and funny Atomiko; Bryant Hernandez, a humorous and touching Tacho; Catalina Maynard as Irma, Tres Camarones’ most famous bowler; Xavi Moreno and Javier Guerrero sharp and effective in various roles; and young Kenia Ramirez as Nayeli, Dorothy of Oz, only much more visionary and a master of karate.
Herbert Siguenza, the Rep’s artist/physical poet in residence, plays countless persons, from evil to surprisingly generous. He makes each distinct and fully formed in seconds. In his scenes and elsewhere, it looks as if Seguenza might have had a hand — and maybe his pen — in the funnier shtick and dialogue.
79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
Into the Beautiful North, by Karen Zacharias, based on the novel by Luis Alberto Urrea.
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Kenia Ramirez, Jennifer Paredes, Bryant Hernandez, Catalina Maynard, Jorge Rodriguez, Herbert Siguenza, Xavi Moreno, Javier Guerrero; scenic and projection designs, Ian Wallace, costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings, lighting, Lonnie Alcaraz, sound, Matt Lescault-wood, original music and soundscape, Michael Roth, fight choreographer, George Ye
Playing through April 23; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; sdrep.org.