bilingual theater

On the run from dystopia

Milagro's new touring show "Bi–" looks to a totalitarian future and blazes a path to the beauty of in-between

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.

“Bi–,” and between. Photo: Russell J Young

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.

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El Payaso: Not just clowning around

Milagro's bilingual Fertile Ground play recalls clown/activist Ben Linder and highlights current social and political struggles

On April 30, 1987, David and Elisabeth Linder buried their 27-year-old son, Ben, in Matagalpa, a small city in Nicaragua. Ben Linder had been tortured and killed two days before with American arms at the hands of Reagan-backed Contras fighting an insurgent war against the nation’s leftist Sandinista government. A funeral led by then-Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra followed, with a procession of thousands of local and foreign mourners, and in that crowd marched clowns from the Nicaraguan National Circus, their painted mouths turned downwards.

Milagro contributes to Portland’s ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of new works with its world premiere of El Payaso, a bilingual agitprop play that matches our times and is based on Ben Linder’s life. El Payaso (The Clown) runs through January 21 and then sets off for a national tour to educate middle schoolers.

Milagro’s “El Payaso”: clowing, engineering, pushing for change. Photo: Russell J Young

Based on talks with Linder’s parents and some of Ben’s letters, rising Latino star playwright Emilio Rodriguez wrote the script. Rodriguez co-owns the Black and Brown Theatre Company in Detroit, where he is also a teacher. He’s known for writing scripts with a well-developed poetic muscle, and El Payaso is a living eulogy to the fallen activist Linder. Half the play is spoken in Spanish, and an elementary proficiency is helpful to follow along.

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