Dorothy Gale once said while clicking her heels, “There’s no place like home.” But she had to travel far and wide, down the yellow brick road, through the Emerald City, against all strange odds, to get back where she started and belonged. Milagro Theatre’s Into the Beautiful North is a similarly wild tale of a band of outsiders on a journey to discover that the golden and kaleidoscope-feathered Aztlán, legendary ancestral home of the Aztec peoples, is a state of mind.
Olga Sanchez and Daniel Jáquez direct Karen Zacarías’s new adaptation of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel by the same name. It’s not magical realism, but it creates a surreal and vivid dreamscape, from the tiny town of Tres Camarones (translated as Three Shrimps), across the Tijuana/United States border, to a brief pit stop in San Diego, through the dusty and dry desert of Nevada (where’s the snow?), Colorado, and a small town named Kankakee, Illinois, with two gazebos donated by David Letterman, and finally back again to Tres Camarones.
The three heroes are led by Nayeli, played by Michelle Escobar, who on the outside is a pretty but plain girl who waitresses at a cafe with the only internet connection in town. But, as with Dorothy, don’t let appearances fool you: Nayeli has an unbridled imagination. Her best friend, Vampi (Michelle Caughlin), is the small-town Goth chick complete with corset, hot pants, patterned stockings, and maroon black lipstick. Vampi is one of the tale’s least romantic characters, despite her appearance, and adds a little restraint to Nayeli’s stargazing. Tacho (Danny Mareno) is Nayeli’s boss, and one of the last men who live in Tres Camarones. He faces constant tiny aggressions because he’s gay. The exodus of men to the United States has left the fishing village open to threats from narcos and other highway bandidos. Nayeli is inspired by the ’60s classic western film The Magnificent Seven to find seven equal warriors to protect Tres Camarones.
Into the Beautiful North is a patchwork quilt of cultural references from south to north and back again. In its clear and more articulated pictures it draws out scenes like a Naked Lunch reference, and though moments seem supernatural, they are rooted in real life. As Nayeli, Vampi and Tacho get close to the famous border fence they enter El Dompe, Spanglish for “the dump.” It’s Tijuana’s landfill, and also home to people who salvage food and materials. (One of the most successful was Rafael Gutierrez Moreno, who ran an enormous crew and left $1.6 million fortune upon his death.) At El Dompe the absurd trio meet Atomiko (Anthony Lam), who looks like a crusty punk with a studded jacket and Hello Kitty backpack, but his character is a vibrant and loud echo of a Lucha Libre source, and how could he not be with a name like that?
While at El Dompe, Nayeli has her first brush with mortality at the border. She sees three immaculate and decorated graves. It touches her and for a moment, and we hope, with her, that the journey is safe and all will get a hero’s welcome home. This tender scene comes off like the rich hues of a watercolor painting: while little visual cues are given, the script, acting and directing guide us to see and feel the shock together.
Mark Haack’s set is a zoetrope of images that move in an iconic stutter. As the threesome move along, their visual backdrop jolts us out of the serious nature that could be taken on such a journey. A good measure of comic relief foils the grave moments, and the set looks like the pastiche windows that appeared in early films when actors were driving cars.
Unlike the dark and drugged-out Naked Lunch, Into the Beautiful North uses the absurd to bring home the realities of migrating back and forth between Mexico and the United States. Through this effect it evolves more akin to the movie Tank Girl, in which the characters and plot are magnified to such an extent that their fantastic manners and happenstance embellish the brutal realities with a human touch.
Into the Beautiful North continues through May 28 at Milagro. Ticket and schedule information here.