It’s been quite a year in Chicagoland for Karen Zacarías, and it’s not over yet. One year after her The Book Club Play graced the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, a month after Destiny of Desire opened at the Goodman, and a month before Native Gardens plays at Victory Gardens, her new play Into the Beautiful North is receiving a rolling world premiere back at 16th Street. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Naperville resident Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Beautiful North is a hilarious, bitingly satirical, and occasionally terrifying and disturbing adventure story about a group of young Mexicans going on a quest to the distant, fabled city of Kankakee. The dangers awaiting them will change how they see everything.
The small Mexican town of Tres Camarones doesn’t have much. There’s just one internet-capable computer, owned by Tacho (Esteban Andres Cruz), the gay proprietor of the internet café. There’s a shuttered movie theatre where people used to escape into wild flights of fancy. And recently, nearly all the men seem to have deserted for the United States. This makes Tres Camarones easy prey to the evil narcos, who steal and abuse the town’s inhabitants as they please. But the town still successfully holds a mayoral election, which is won by Irma Cervantes (Laura Crotte) on a platform of boosting female employment by holding a Yul Brenner festival (though the cinema owner insists on a Steve McQueen festival).
While the town watches The Magnificent Seven, Irma’s niece, Nayeli (Ilse Zacharias), has a bold idea: why not go to the United States and gather seven brave Mexican men to fight off the narcos? They could even start with her father, who sent her a postcard once from Kankakee claiming he had done well. Irma supports the idea and contributes a lead of her own, while Nayeli gathers Tacho and her goth friend, Vampi (Allyce Torres), to make the journey to Tijuana, and then, illegally cross the border and go onward to Illinois, with stops for sight-seeing in Beverly Hills and Hollywood.
All does not go well. The band of friends is subjected to harassment and assault by federal troops searching for illegal Central American immigrants while still deep within Mexico. At Tijuana, they are joined by the dump-dwelling garbage warrior, Atomiko (Brandon Rivera), but their first crossing attempt is a disaster. The friends soon realize they have no idea what they will do even if they do get across, but this only proves to Nayeli that only the braves heroes can survive going to the United States.
Directed by Ann Filmer and cast member Miguel Nuñez, Into the Beautiful North rides the peaks of absurdity and valleys of real life horror like a roller coaster. Though we may be chuckling at Nayeli’s silhouetted Jack Sparrow-fantasy-lover one minute and cringing at an all-too-real incident of homophobia or xenophobia the next, the play is very much a coherent whole. Partly that’s because of a brilliant design by Joanna Iwanicka (set), Cat Wilson (lighting), Rachel Sypniewski (costumes) and Barry Bennett (sound/music), which capture the look of a Technicolor Western. We’re half-in the land of myth, where good and evil, love, and coming of age journeys are all outsized, so, of course, anything can happen.
But we’re also in the realm of shrewd political commentary, and that’s where the eight-person ensemble really shines. Zacharias, Crotte, Cruz, Nuñez, Torres, Rivera, and Andrés Enriquez and Juan Munoz go through a whirlwind of character changes as they perform this epic, each moving between larger-than-life performance styles and brief, but fascinating portraits of people from a massive swath of North America. Nayeli is so optimistic it’s impossible not to love her, and Tacho likewise emerges as a true hero in the face of the crap he is subjected to.
Filmer’s pre-show announcement hails the Mexican pride in this play, and that’s certainly present in abundance. Despite the outward simplicity of the presentation, we feel as though we are going on this journey with these characters as they learn about their own country and the United States. Atomiko the garbage warrior is amusing, but we are pointedly reminded that people really do live and die in such dumps. That’s an indictment of both countries’ social structures as well as a tribute to ordinary peoples’ courage, resourcefulness, and determination to survive. As is often the case with 16th Street, the play was extended before it even opened. As fine as this story is, it works especially well in an intimate setting. Don’t wait to get your tickets.
Into the Beautiful North is playing at the 16th St Theater in the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Il. Performances run Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm through June 3rd. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Free parking is available in the parking lot at 16th St and Gunderson.
To order, call 708-795-6704 or visit 16thstreettheater.org.
*Extended through June 17th