Wednesday, January 18, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #1: Amarillo at Woodward's and Gala Opening at The Waldorf

This year's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival got off to a roaring success last night with a packed house at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's for the opening of Amarillo, by Mexico's Teatro Linea de Sombra. Amarillo is a mid-size city in the Texas panhandle, a long way from the Mexican border, but it is the destination of our nameless, faceless, ageless protagonist in this piece, who departs his native Mexico for its unknown horizons, only to come up against the wall the US has erected to bar his entry, as well as the wall of silence surrounding his disappearance. And, in fact, we learn that there are many names, with many different faces, and of many different ages who have so disappeared, with performer Raúl Mendoza at one particularly mesmerizing moment donning a series of sweatshirts to signify the thousands of Mexican citizens who yearly risk their lives in flight for what they imagine will be a better life as an illegal immigrant in a country that has stated in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome, and will be repelled at all costs.

All of this is conveyed in a series of monologues (translated via English surtitles, although they aren't really needed to follow the story) that are accompanied by recorded and live video projections on the giant white wall that serves as the monumental backdrop to the set. The live feeds, in particular, result in some stunning tableaux, as when Mendoza climbs some ladder-like steps jutting out of the stage-right side of the wall, eventually hanging off of the top one while the image of a train is projected behind him. The creators have even rigged cameras up in the rafters, which results in equally arresting images of the various patterns created by the objects and material substances strewn across the stage over the course of the production (there are a lot of them and, as with White Cabin at Club PuSh from a couple of years ago, I wouldn't want to have to stage manage or tech this show!). Two of the most prominent of those substances are water and sand. When, for example, Mendoza is recounting the dangers of dying from dehydration in the desert, performers Alicia Laguna, María Luna, and Antígona González set out what had to have been at least 40-50 gallon size plastic jugs, some of them already filled, others with a smaller container emptying its contents into them--which, when illuminated with a small flashlight and captured via the overhead video, creates a projected image that's at once magical and threatening. Ditto the sand--mostly white, but occasionally coloured red--that empties out of bags attached to cables that are lowered and raised at different points, or that the performers spill from shoes and bottles and their own hands to create lines and borders and compasses on the stage. At once the impassable desert that sucks dry all that moisture in those water bottles and that literally swallows up so many Mexican bodies, the bags of sand also neatly telegraph the image of illegal drugs being conveyed across the border, whether phantasmatically in the minds of American law enforcement officers or very materially in the backpacks of desperate Mexican immigrants corralled into becoming mules for drug lords who (often also phantasmatically) promise them money and safe passage across the border. Then, too, the suspended and slowly emptying bags of sand also convey an image of the hourglass, time slowly but surely slipping away from all who find themselves in this no man's land of the border.

Two things I wasn't prepared for in this production were the prodigious use of movement and Jesús Cuevas' haunting vocalizations. On the former front, lots of extreme physical activity (running, jumping, spinning, fighting, even a bit of gymnastics involving a table and two chairs) combines with simple folk and line dance sequences played out near or against the back wall to convey the trajectory between stasis and movement. When Mendoza is still in this piece (most prominently at the beginning and end), we understand the import. As for Cuevas, he plays a sort of Trickster/seer/sheriff character, his basso profundo--which erupts at various points in the evening from the back of his throat (and from a diaphragm that must have untold depths)--as well as his echoed recitative to some of the monologues, variously a lure, a warning, a dirge.

Finally, last night's performance had added significance for those of us sitting in a venue that is officially known as the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, as at one point in the performance Mendoza reads a letter from Mexico to the "citizens of Vancouver" urging us to protest the damage wrought upon the environment and local indigenous populations by mining companies operating in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The audience, which included the president of my university, was absolutely silent at that point.

In short, Amarillo is a thrilling work of theatre. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this amazing company (well-known in Mexico and widely toured, but new to Vancouver), and it was another inspired choice to open the Festival. The show runs tonight and tomorrow at SFU Woodward's, and I strongly urge people to see it while they can. Tonight's show is preceded by a free screening of the film Norteado (in conjunction with the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival) and followed by a post-show talkback on the issue of borders, national and otherwise.

On a personal note, I was also pleased (and relieved) that my own pre-show performance--that is, the fundraising appeal from the Board that I volunteered to pitch--seemed to be a success. We exceeded our matching gift goal last night (!) and many folks came up to me at our Gala party at the Waldorf afterwards saying how heartfelt my words seemed and, most importantly, how much they supported the work of PuSh.

The party itself was great fun: the right mix of people, entertainment, and of course fabulous venue. If only I hadn't walked into that glass door upon exiting--and I wasn't even drunk.

Tonight it's the opening of Club PuSh, where we'll also be hosting a reception for our amazing Patron's Circle members. I'll be there, sore nose and all.


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