It was the coldest night of the year, but inside the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, the packed PuSh Festival opening-night audience was sweltering (metaphorically, of course) in the dusty desert heat generated by Mexico City's Teatro Linea de Sombra.
In a crucial scene in Amarillo, a John Doe (Raul Mendoza) whose real name might be Pedro or Antonio, who might be 18 or 29, who might be from El Salvador or Guatemala, is surrounded by empty water jugs, sand raining down on him. He is dying from dehydration.
The real cause of death, we come to understand over a fiercely intense, politically charged hour, is oppression, corruption, the supreme injustice of one's fate being determined by his place of birth. The real cause of death is desperation (his) and indifference (ours – at least, society's).
Amarillo opens with audio clips of people explaining, in Spanish, the costs of attempting an escape to America, and why they do it anyway. One man wants a better future for his wife and two-year-old child. "We are searching for the American Dream."
The gateway to that dream is Amarillo, Tex.
Amarillo's website may boast that the town "always welcomes newcomers," but try telling that to Mendoza's Latin American Everyman, who is headed there with a loaf of bread and a couple of cans of tuna in his backpack and a jug of water, almost empty.
He is a face for the scores of men who disappear on this journey.
It's only after he dies – that cruel desert death by dehydration – that some details emerge of the life he has left behind.
This plays out in a multimedia storm: Throughout much of the show, the six performers' actions are captured live on video (including an overhead camera), which is projected onto a giant screen behind the stage. That screen also becomes a wall; no matter how high our would-be refugee jumps (and he can jump), it is insurmountable. It's equipped with metal rungs and he climbs it too, at one point facing the audience with arms outstretched, Christ on the cross. Mendoza's tough athleticism carries the physically demanding role.
Prerecorded video and audio clips are also sources of commentary. We see desperate men try to escape their circumstances atop The Beast – a speeding train. We hear then-U.S. President George W. Bush warning that America's enemies are seeking to expand their "empire of oppression."
There is some prerecorded music, too, but what really stands out is the mournful live soundtrack provided by the extraordinary Jesus Cuevas, a throat singer who taught himself the craft by listening to recordings of Mongolian practitioners. Looking the part of the Texan cowboy with standard-issue hat and belt buckle, Cuevas circles the stage, a human didgeridoo.
If there was ever any question about just how fiercely political a work Amarillo is, that doubt was erased as Mendoza (who appeared to step out of character at this point) urged the audience to appeal to the government "to stop the greed" of a Canadian mining company threatening to "destroy and pollute" Mexican land. The irony of this plea being issued in an arts complex named for a mining company was not lost.
The production is technically complex and, on opening night, things were bumpy. At a critical point in the action, during what appeared to be an impassioned monologue by Mendoza's character, the surtitles failed, and those of us who do not speak Spanish were left in the dark. At other times the surtitles were far ahead of the action. Also, there were quite a few typos.
Further, the audio was all over the place: Sometimes the actors were drowned out by the music; one monologue was so loud, it was uncomfortable. The production could have used a preview to work out these kinks.
But there was a lot of life in this sorrowful tale told so creatively, and its impact was strong. It's a good bet that audience members were thanking the fates for the happy accident of being born in Canada, or being able to make their way here.
Lest we get a little too smug about our social justice record here, as we left the theatre – some on our way to the PuSh opening gala – many of us walked through the Downtown Eastside, ground zero for the city's homelessness problem. I encountered one person settling down for the night on a little red blanket in a doorway, a bursting shopping cart nearby. I got in the car and heard the weather report: It was minus 6.
Amarillo runs until Jan. 19. The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival runs in Vancouver until Feb. 4.
- Written By Gabriel Contreras
- Directed By Jorge A. Vargas
- A Teatro Linea de Sombra production
- At the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in Vancouver
- 3 stars