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i put the fear of méxico in ’em at Teatro Vista

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Teatro Vista. By Matthew Paul Olmos. Dir. Ricardo Gutierrez. With ensemble cast. 1hr 35mins; no intermission.

The tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border are clearly worthy of reporting right now, whether journalistically or theatrically. But Matthew Paul Olmos’s grating new Tijuana-set work doesn’t fit the bill, at least in a Teatro Vista premiere in which director Ricardo Gutierrez’s realism-based vision butts heads with Olmos’s more fantastic tendencies.

The Los Angeles–born, New York–based playwright opens his piece on an agitated but perplexing set of circumstances: An otherwise decent-seeming Mexican couple (Miguel Nunez and Charin Alvarez) is holding a pair of white-bread American tourists (Cheryl Graeff and Bryn Packard) at gunpoint in a Tijuana back alley. We eventually get an inkling—though Olmos doesn’t make it easy—that the two couples’ early-teenage kids might be classmates and budding crushes in Southern California, a development that pleases neither set of parents due to irrational assumptions about race, class and nationality. Olmos keeps packing on grotesque layers—a walking-dead cop, a parasitic snake as an embodiment of racism—and Gutierrez fails to reconcile them into a unified whole.

Despite the presence of thoughtful, solid actors such as Alvarez and Graeff, Olmos’s characters come across more as arguments than human beings. His storytelling is riddled with implausibilities and confusions, including a number of additional roles filled by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel and Marvin Quijada that feel more like digressions than enhancements. Gonzalez-Cadel gets to deliver one moving monologue as a victim of the vicious drug cartels operating along Mexico’s border. Too bad it seems imported from another, entirely unconnected play.

Time Out Chicago issue no. 403, November 15–21, 2012