The year is 2089. The people of Tierra Plana live orderly lives along strict lines, both figuratively and literally. Walled off from the rest of the world, the xenophobic nation-state has descended into a totalitarian dystopia. The leaders demand order and cultural purity. This is the world Georgina Escobar has created in her new touring show Bi-, which had its world premiere at Milagro Theatre as part of the Fertile Ground Festival.
As a touring show intended mainly for young adult audiences, Bi- is didactic but never feels heavy-handed. The story is fairly simple: The government has instituted a policy of identity bracelets that will neatly categorize the citizens. Four young friends, uncertain about the idea of trying to conform to the strict identities of the state, set out on a journey to find a mysterious underground organization that might offer them freedom.
The idea of boxes and categorization is strong in the show. How strong? Well, the citizens of Tierra Plana are called “squares.” The city itself is composed of hard right angles, represented by lines and boxes taped onstage. The characters shuffle along these narrow pathways, or jump from one platform to the next when inside the city, making great use of the space. There’s a minimal set here but the staging, combined with a Kraftwerk-inspired soundtrack by Lawrence Siulagi, gives the production a futuristic cartoony feeling.
The characters of Bi- are cartoons themselves. Flat but animated. Each of the plucky young protagonists has one defining characteristic. Fig (Ajai Terrazas) wants to assimilate. His brother Noir (Justin Charles) actively rejects attempts to be categorized, flamboyantly breaking the rules of Tierra Plana. Their friends Hex (Kenyon Acton) and Isa (Sierra Brambila) also seek freedom from categorization; unfortunately their characters lack the development given Noir, relegating them to almost-superfluous female sidekicks, one of whom serves as a tacked-on love interest for Fig.
With the performances by the actors heightened to Looney Tunes levels, it makes the characters cyphers for Escobar to explore her ideas rather than people to relate to. Yet the high energy of the cast pushes the show at a brisk pace, moving it quickly from one plot point to the next, keeping the audience’s attention on the ideas and the humor.
Keeping with the cartoon feel, a lot of the show’s comedy of is slapstick and satire. There’s also a hilarious and charming dance number, but the character work is what makes the show come alive. Charles gives a breakout performance as the sassy and subversive Noir and also as the odious Mayor, who is prone to expository monologues. It’s character acting at its finest, for sure, but Charles also finds the hints of depth in Noir, whose posturing masks a need to break free and be himself.
The script tries to center Fig as the protagonist, and Tripathi does a fine job as the anxious youth, but the character has no stakes. His journey of self-discovery is completely driven by the other characters, and happens so fast that that his transformation doesn’t feel earned.
This is the major weakness of the show: its brevity. The plot Escobar unfolds wraps up a little too quickly. The internal logic holds, but it feels like the story’s major turning point happens offstage, and the show pushes into the epilogue without recognizing the climax. The characters, especially the female characters, could have used more development. It’s rare I see a show and think, “I wish it had taken more time.”
Touring shows have short run times: That’s the nature of a production that has to be set up and taken down in a single day. But more could have been done with the time allotted. There are two shifts in convention in the show, one of which works and one of which doesn’t.
The first is when the young travelers stumble across old U.S. census boxes in the desert. When they open the boxes audio interviews with real-life people about “bi-” identities play. These moments serve to connect the ideas of the show with the world of the audience and catalyze the transformation of the characters. The other shifts from the story are poetic monologue/movement sections, which just don’t feel cohesive with the rest of the show. These sections aren’t paced well, and the text just washes over the audience without leaving us anything to hold onto. When these sections ended I never knew what I was supposed to take away from them.
While Escobar’s script acknowledges other “bi” identities, the main struggle of the characters feels ethnic/cultural since they’re set up against the state. In this way the show recognizes that multiple identities exist between clear binaries (bisexual, biracial, intersex, trans, etc…) without conflating them. Bi- is not a deep dive into the struggle of identities that straddle, or resist, classifications, but rather the opening of a conversation about the complexities of individual experiences. The strength of the show is its sincerity. In a time of walls going up in our country, it asks us look past them and see the beauty of in-between.
This show is bilingual, in Spanish and English.
The world premiere of Bi– continues through Saturday, Jan. 20, at Milagro Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.