Theater preview: Rep lifts ‘Curtain’

World-premiere play an edgily satiric saga of immigration’s complexities

Published by the San Diego Union-Tribune March 8, 2012.

By James Hebert

The pair of struggling immigrants in “Tortilla Curtain” — like countless of their counterparts in real life — would move heaven and earth to make a better life for their family.

But in San Diego Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere stage adaptation of T.C. Boyle’s novel, the earth winds up moving in a manner more literal than they could have imagined — and in a way that’s maybe too symbolic for audiences to ignore.

Rep co-founder and artistic director Sam Woodhouse, who is directing playwright Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of the 1994 best-seller, hesitates to give away too much about the natural cataclysm that accompanies the novel’s (and the show’s) climax.

But “we can certainly say that, inspired by the folly of a particular character, an enormous environmental event occurs,” Woodhouse allows. “The landscape is literally transformed.

“There’s a metaphor there: What happens if the Tortilla Curtain (the term Boyle invokes for the U.S.-Mexico border) becomes porous? Will the landscape of California be transformed forever?”

Some might argue that has long since happened. The debate over illegal immigration certainly has transformed the Southwest’s political landscape through the decades — and continues to do so, with recent battles over Arizona’s strict 2010 immigration law and the DREAM Act (which would offer residency to some illegal immigrants who arrived here as minors).

So although Boyle’s darkly satirical novel came out amid the furor over earlier immigration legislation — California’s sweeping Proposition 187 in 1994 (which won at the polls but eventually died in court) — its themes haven’t lost their potency, Woodhouse says.

“It’s fun to do a play about something that everybody has an opinion about,” as the director puts it. “Everybody who comes to the play is part of a culture that’s living with this issue. If you live in San Diego, you can’t pretend you’re not impacted by it.”

Barriers of all kinds

At the center of the “Tortilla” story are two undocumented Mexican laborers: Cándido Rincón (Kinan Valdez) and his pregnant, common-law wife, América (Old Globe/USD MFA grad Vivia Font).

Their dreams of a more prosperous existence in California have run up against the brutal realities of predatory smugglers, scant jobs and hostile residents. Now they’re living in desperation and destitution in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon, in the shadows of a hilltop gated community.

When one of that neighborhood’s residents — an affluent “liberal humanist” named Delaney Mossbacher (Mike Sears), who’s married to lawyer Kyra (Lisel Gorell-Getz) — accidentally hits Cándido with his car, the couples’ lives become an intertwined spiral of chaos. (The Rep production’s cast also features Miles Gaston Villanueva, David Meyers and Jeremy Kahn.)

Spangler, a professor of playwriting and immigration studies at San Jose State University who adapted Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner” for the stage, notes that people like Cándido and América represent only a fraction of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. (Some are, for example, students or foreign workers with expired visas).

But those who are like the couple in his play “don’t have the same access to some of the civil and legal protections that the rest of us do. And that’s something the book and this play point to. There are some horrible things that happen to the immigrant characters here, and they can’t go to the police. They can’t mount a lawsuit against somebody who has wronged them.

“Of course, there are a lot of works that can focus on that theme. But one thing I liked about (Boyle’s novel) is that it’s also a point-of-view piece. So not only do you have the immigrants’ point of view, but you have the nativists’, the locals’ — the point of view of the settled community.

“And then I suppose as I read the book I liked its humor. It is kind of a dark, satirical story. That’s the type of thing that in many ways appeals to me. I wanted to see if we could capture that onstage.”

The script he came up with (which earned Boyle’s blessing, Spangler says) has Cándido, América and Delaney each addressing the audience directly at times, with Kyra becoming a secondary figure.

“There are 33 scenes in the play, and each is told from a different point of view,” Spangler explains. “So by the end, the audience starts to know more than any of the three (main) characters. That’s part of the conceit of the book and the play — that they start acting on knowledge that they think they have.”

Tales that humanize

Valdez, who’s the producing artistic director of El Teatro Campesino — the iconic Chicano troupe founded in 1965 by his father, playwright Luis Valdez — says the approach gets at the heart of the characters’ contrasting realities.

“The best way to humanize any particular story or person is to allow (the individuals) to explain their choices,” says Valdez, who has acted in Rep productions dating back to the 1990s. “My character has these elaborate, what you might call fantasy sequences, where he explains his particular past. But it’s framed in such a way that’s it’s definitely not naturalistic or realistic. In fact, it’s more comedic.

“Everybody’s going to work to make their arguments and defend the choices they’ve made; everybody is selective in the revelations of certain material and certain experiences.”

In some ways, “Tortilla Curtain” shares artistic DNA with “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” another immigration-minded (though more farcical) work that recently was staged at La Jolla Playhouse.

Woodhouse directed a production of that play in Denver; now Herbert Siguenza, a charter member of the troupe Culture Clash — which co-created “American Night” — has been advising Woodhouse and the “Tortilla Curtain” creative team. (Siguenza also portrayed Cándido in an earlier workshop of “Tortilla.”)

But the new play is also of a piece with the Rep’s long history of producing works that speak to border issues, chiefly through its Calafia Initiative, which has birthed about two dozen works since 1995.

For Woodhouse, a key question behind “Tortilla Curtain” is one of privilege versus obligation.

“We have a big, prosperous, churning country — the richest in the world,” as he puts it. “Who has the right to share in that? And who has the right to say who can share in that?”

As the decades-long immigration debate has demonstrated, those are complicated and divisive issues.

“But if there’s no controversy,” Woodhouse says, “we’re not asking the right questions about how to make our country a better place to live.”

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