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Theater Sun Nov 18 2012
The last time I visited my hometown in Florida the main thing I wanted to do -- besides see my family -- was go to the Columbia, a Spanish restaurant that serves the best deviled crabs (Cuban-breaded) and yellow rice on the beach. As I sat down at one of the restaurant's boardwalk tables, I knew exactly what I wanted to order: palomilla, a thinly sliced beef with a mountain of white-onions and an ocean of lime juice. For three months I had been dreaming of this little slice of citrusy beefed perfection.
Our waiter came around and I quickly told him what I wanted. For the next 30 minutes I ate Cuban bread and looked at the ocean and loved my life. Then, it happened, our main dishes came to the table and this isn't what I ordered, it must be a mistake. Instead of immediately flipping the table and pulling a Teresa Giudice ("You prostitution whore!"), I took a deep breath. What the waiter put in front of me wasn't palomilla -- it was some type of chicken dish. After a few minutes of my sweaty palms combing the menu, I realized that the chicken dish was actually what I had (accidentally) ordered. Somehow in the mix of salt breeze and sunshine I had lost the last bit of brains I had and made a basic tourist move.
Since this was my fault, I couldn't send it back (I've never sent anything back, but still). I begrudgingly started eating the chicken. After a few bites, I decided that I at the very least I had tried something new. Still, I had wanted palomilla and not getting it, framed my whole experience. This palomilla mix-up is similar to how I felt about i put the fear of mexico in 'em, the new play by Teatro Vista at Chicago Dramatists. The show wasn't exactly what I had thought I ordered, but I still went for it.
Directed by Ricardo Gutierrez, i put the fear is a drama that is somehow supposed to be about the social and political conflicts between the United States and Mexico. The main narrative of the show is constructed around a Mexican couple who hold up an American couple at machine-gunpoint. The Mexican couple goes on to posit this holdup as an attempt to confront stereotypes and humanize themselves to the American couple. This tactic may seem paradoxical, but the idea made sense to me; forcing people to confront their privilege -- this time at gunpoint -- might give them a new perspective. The keyword in that last sentence is might. The initial problem is that this holdup is complicated, because anything at gunpoint automatically implies greater aggression, and how can they be redeemed? It would have felt better and given the narrative a little more flexibility if the couples interacted in a more organic and less forceful way. Instead of any real self-reflection, the American couple screams a lot, throws their money around, and drinks Tecate -- archetypical tourists getting a "real" Mexican experience (this is explicitly stated in the dialogue). A majority of the time the Mexican couple philosophizes and the American couple usually responds with sentiments kind of like, "Oh yeah, well, so what -- that's just how it is."
We find out that the couples are somehow connected. The connection is plausible, but extremely reaching and never fully explained. The interconnection is supposed to concretize things and offer an opportunity to talk about social issues, but it just seems too self-indulgent to really be meaningful.
The interjected story line about Mexican life created the most powerful and interesting scenes in the production. These people and story lines were evocative and insightful. While the couple-dichotomy was heavy-handed, these characters were nuanced enough to be fascinating. In these scenes, the audience learns about the real troubles that can affect daily life in Mexico. These moments felt like real portrayals of things going on south of the US border. I wish they would have explored these characters more instead of trying to comingle these story lines with the tourist narrative. I understand that it's supposed to show that our decisions affect other people, but it was disjointed to the point of distracting.
The set is great -- very metallic and rough with a pull-down bar used as a clever feature and talking point. It helped give some texture to the narrative. The acting in the show has really good moments -- especially by Cruz Gonzalez Cadel and Miguel Nunez. While the American couple has little depth, the actors (Bryn Packard and Cheryl Graeff) make the characters as annoying as they need to be -- so they definitely did the whiny tourist thing justice.
The very big racial statements in i put the fear of mexico in 'em either needs to be completely fleshed out to a new consciousness or super-simplified to highlight singular issues. The show puts its toe in the ocean of US/Mexican tension, but it doesn't go deep enough to really give a new perspective on anything.
This could have been like my palomilla bias, though. Situated in a Chicago theater, i put the fear is a worthwhile show to give a chance; it brings up some heavy ideas on race-relations. I just wish the show would have offered a more defined point-of-view. While I don't think many audience members will be booking flights to Mexico after they see the show, it does make for a captivating enough experience.
i put the fear of mexico in 'em runs until Dec. 9 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. You can see the show Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20-$25.
photo credit:Credit: Carrillo Photography