September 24th, 2008 By Matt Graham | News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Multnomah County

Stage Review: Dos Pueblos

DosPueblos07Hell is other people.

­-Jean-Paul Satre

Can you feel it?

I said, can you feel it?

This is the question repeatedly asked by the menagerie of characters in Dos Pueblos, the bilingual lovechild of Mexico City's La Comedia Humana and Portland's Hand2Mouth Theatre. Its 10-member cast comprises five actors from Mexico and five from Portland interacting in a fluid series of vignettes crafted by Ruben Ortiz and Jonathan Walters, the companies' respective artistic directors, with dramaturgical help from Miracle Theatre Group's Olga Sanchez .

On its surface, Dos Pueblos is a story about the contentious border between the United States and Mexico. That isn't to say that the play is an extended policy discussion, nor does it offer up any easy ideological solutions. Instead, it portrays a series of interactions: Americans in Mexico, Mexicans in America, and both of them in Texas/Tejas trying to figure out just who really owns the land.

There is no single, overarching narrative, and Dos Pueblos makes no attempt to tell a single conventional story. Rather, as one scene transitions to the next an actor—for example Alejandro Benítez—can go from playing a security guard to a Mexican trying get through US customs to a game show host dressed as Ronald McDonald. The play may superficially be a story about American/Mexican relations, but its real theme is less topical and rather more existential. The real theme of Dos Pueblos identity, so it's fitting that no actor's identity is ever really set.

Nor is the stage. The intimate setting at El Centro Milagro features a simple blank wall as a backdrop. While it is kept in the near-dark for much of the play, at times it serves as the screen for a projected image of a Southwest-themed diorama, replete with cacti and sandstone and the occasional subtitle. The wall is also peppered with hidden doors that cast members pop open and speak through, Laugh-In style.

Dos Pueblos can be brutally funny, like in one scene where a group of American college students head down to Acapulco for some Spring Break debauchery. Cordoned off behind a partition of plastic Mexican flags strung on a thin white rope, the Gringos grind up on one another in an almost-violent, oversexed gyration shouting “I love Mexico!” as the master of ceremonies holds bottle of Jose Cuervo upside down over their heads, pouring its contents down their throats and all over their bodies. It's entertaining at first, in the same way Animal House is entertaining; but somewhere along the line the insane, Girls Gone Wild excesses turn revolting. Understandably, the natives stand outside looking on in disgust. By the time the Americans collapse to the floor the ground is strewn with their trash and it's hard to begrudge the locals for taking advantage of the opportunity to comb through the spoiled students' pockets while they lie there unconscious.

There is a constant emotional pendulum at work. Dos Pueblos never stays upbeat or downtrodden for any length of time and tears of laughter blend tears of sadness on a several occasions, no more poignantly than the aforementioned scene where Alejandro Benítez plays a Mexican citizen trying to proceed through US customs. Two agents tear apart each of his items before shrink wrapping them in cellophane. The visitor's eager smile slowly morphs into an expression of shame as the officials end by stripping him of his clothes and taping him up like a mummy in boxer shorts. As bad as this is, the real horror is what takes place off stage: as this is going on, the seven other members of the cast sit in the stands with the audience pointing and laughing hysterically.

But as already mentioned, the contrast of mirth and the morbidity is not the only duality that twines through the play. Being split between two languages, usually with no translation, Dos Pueblos runs the huge risk that those who never got beyond counting uno, dos, tres (or conversely, one, two, three) will be wondering just what the hell is going on.

Fortunately, thanks to smart writing and even smarter choreography and acting, I never once felt like I didn't know what was happening on stage, despite never getting past quince. While stopping short of doing a full-on, Broadway-style dance routine, the actors move about the stage in disciplined, choreographed manner, using the space and their bodies to full demonstrative effect. Maybe we have to learn vocabulary and syntax, but one idiom we all come into this world knowing is that of the face and body. Whatever the language, whatever the culture, whatever the skin color, the human body is a constant.

The human body, and with it, humanity. Dos Pueblos effectively draws a series of parallels between life in Mexico and life in the United States. It documents the almost mirror sacrifices of those Texans who gave their lives at the Alamo in the fight to maintain their independence from Mexico, as well as the Mexican youths who surrendered their lives rather than their freedom fighting the Americans at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City during the Mexican-American War. Nowhere in the play is there an attempt made to portray one side or the other as the villain in these conflicts, or to pin the blame on anyone. Instead, the deaths are portrayed as tragic sacrifices for something greater than the self: the idea of freedom.

Somewhat less grimly, another parallel is drawn when the Mexican and American actors alternate telling stories in the mother tongues about their fondest memories from childhood. Each story is punctuated by a question, asked in the speaker's native tongue: “Can you feel it?” The response, in the opposite language, emerging from one of the Laugh-In doors suddenly burst open: “I can feel it.”

But can they really? How can any of us feel with the feelings of the Other? This is the essential question that Dos Pueblos asks. If each of us is ultimately our own self, locked away inside our own skull, seeing the world from behind our own eyes and looking over the border of our own nation, can any of us really understand the life of another?

The character who asks the question most eloquently is a woman whose life occurs in fast forward. In a span of just a couple of minutes we see her leave a former lover, marry another man and bear his child while and just across stage the simultaneous story of the love of her youth unfolds as events takes him off to the army and eventually to war. After giving birth, she quotes the Mexican poet Octavio Paz and his poem Sunstone, asking:



This our life when was it truly ours?

When are we truly whatever we are?

Surely we are not, we never are

Anything but spinning and emptiness

For what can be I should be someone else

Leave myself, find myself among the others

The others who aren't if I don't exist

The others who give me the fullest existence

Paz's words make all our existential loneliness comes to seem like so much nihilistic sophistry, the product of hypertrophied egos too self-absorbed ever to give, and too proud ever to receive, Love. It's not about being good to people, which seems a bit too much like a moralistic imperative, but about seeing others as an integral part of one's own deepest being. It's a lesson any person, or any nation, would do well to learn.

Hell isn't other people. Other people are what life is made of.

Yes, we are all different, but Dos Pueblos' deepest lesson is that on a deeper level, we are all the same. At no time does this come across more strongly than during the play's emotional climax, which takes place not on the stage, but in the stands, as members of the crowd follow the cast in naming deceased loved ones. The cast members have handed out cups full of water to everyone in the stands, from which they all drink as they say in unison, “Salúd.”

Can you feel it?
 
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