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O Little Town 

Sex and death on the Mexican border

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003
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Octavio Solis' new play, Bethlehem, starts with a beautiful, languid scene in front of an El Paso house. Evening light shines on the adobe walls, Mexican guitar music plays, and a slightly crazy black woman comes on keening a song of grief. She carries a blue suitcase covered in pen graffiti, and when she opens it, a pencil-thin fluorescent light flickers on, inside, to illuminate a little shrine to her daughter. This woman, Mrs. Dewey, once pulled the plug on her comatose teenage daughter to donate her heart to a wounded local man, Mateo, who went on to slaughter a girl just like the one who saved his life. Mrs. Dewey hates him now. She wanders El Paso with her suitcase shrine to let everyone know what kind of a monster lives in town.

So far so good. A stranger by the name of Lee Rosenblum shows up from New York, on assignment from a slick magazine, to profile Mateo and tell his side of the gruesome story. Mateo and his mother, a large and surly Mexican lady, live alone in the adobe house. What starts as a somewhat delicate professional assignment for Lee turns into a harrowing journey of self-discovery, after Mateo gets a good look at him and suspects he's not really a smooth Jewish yuppie. "That red tomato edge in your eye look Mexican to me," he says. Sure enough, Lee's real name is Leandro Guerra, and to understand Mateo's act of murder he needs to excavate a sin of his own from his deep-Mexican past.

Fans of Octavio Solis will recognize the pattern: Bethlehem is a drama of Mexican-American identity, set in the border neighborhood of El Paso-Juárez. It drips with a gaudy intensity, with Aztec images of ripped-out hearts, flayed human skins, beautiful virgins who drive men to extreme behavior, and a world drenched in the redemptive gore of Christ. You may think I'm exaggerating, but in that case you'll have to sit through the second half of Bethlehem and see for yourself. Solis takes his yuppie journalist on a (rather self-conscious) trip from bland American superficialities into the ancient, primitive heart of life and death -- located, in Leandro's case, in a Mexican village known as Belen, or Bethlehem.

The play benefits from a kick-ass cast. The actors in Campo Santo have been Solis' most faithful interpreters in San Francisco, and they come through brilliantly for him here. Luis Saguar is a growling, diabolical Mateo, in plaid shirt and sullen dungarees, with straggly hair and a gray-fringed devil beard. His tantrums are powerful; his quiet scenes are intense. Sean San José stretches from his usual Campo Santo role as a downbeat street tough or a masculine Marine -- someone who'd wear a tattoo for one of the old-fashioned reasons -- to play the straight-arrow Lee, in Rockports and glasses. He does it with the hint of a sneer, just enough satire to make things interesting. Catherine Castellanos also stretches marvelously from her standard hectoring white mother or sister into Ama, Mateo's half-sane Mexican mom, with a fierce frown on her darkened face and a tendency to whack people with brooms.

The trouble with Bethlehem is the same trouble Solis had last year with Dreamlandia, at Thick House. His drama gets distracted by a concept. He's named the play, first of all, after W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" ("The blood-dimmed tide is loosed. ... And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"). Imagery from this poem, along with the image of two raw, beating hearts and some bloody Aztec-Christian parallels, suggests to Solis a great spiritual mystery, which he emphasizes in a fancy identity-switch between Lee and Mateo. It doesn't work. Any ambitious writer who goes mucking around in sublime mysteries does it, like Lee, at great risk, and Solis comes back from his adventure with a tantalizing play that in the end feels forced. Jack Nicholson once told an interviewer about a movie script that had been "crucified on an idea," and this phrase, I'm afraid, describes the second half of Bethlehem perfectly.

The story of Mrs. Dewey and her sacrificed daughter becomes a subplot, but ironically it's the most successful strand of the play. Margo Hall performs Mrs. Dewey with a powerful abandon, moving from hatred and grief to a seemingly impossible, but very real, pity for the monster in possession of her daughter's heart. This subplot may be the whole point of Bethlehem, and if the rest of the show was as coherent and simple as Mrs. Dewey's agony, it would be a masterpiece.

Instead, we have a play with eloquent surfaces: James Faerron's adobe-looking set, Jim Cave's quiet lights, Drew Yerys' expressive sound, and sharp directing from Solis himself. It's when Solis explores under the surface that things get ugly.

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