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ON THE MOVE: Cesar Flores and Erika Perez try to stay out of the hands of the law in 'Visitor's Guide to Arivaca (Map Not to Scale).'

Desert Cross Point

Teatro Visión looks at human side of immigration in 'Visitor's Guide to Arivaca (Map Not to Scale)'

By Marianne Messina

THE FIRST read-through of a premiere at San Jose's Teatro Visión, one of only a handful of Chicano theaters in the country that present a full season, is accompanied by much celebration: actors come up from L.A.; costume, scenic and sound designers are on hand to introduce their concepts for the play—and there's food. The playwright herself, Evangeline Ordaz, warms everyone up by telling how she came to write the play, or rather, as she immersed herself in the culture of a small Arizona border town called Arivaca, the play wrote itself. "I felt like I was channeling," she says.

But Ordaz assured everyone that Visitor's Guide to Arivaca (Map Not to Scale), which opens this weekend, won't feel like a documentary, even though the characters are inspired by people she can name—like Native American immigrant-rights activist George Wilson. "I am very interested in story," says Ordaz.

Her play takes place where tensions are high as the crosscurrent of interests in the illegal immigration issue converge on a raging desert. The story unfolds in short scenes that, according to set designer Leigh Henderson, are cinematic, and therefore challenging to stage. The scene jumps from one side of the border to the other, from a young Mexican couple trying to cross north to an "old lady rancher," as actress Patricia Silver calls her role, whose ranch sits on the main artery of surreptitious cross-border traffic.

In a small-scale model of the stage, Henderson points to a series of square platforms that will provide the different scenes. She chose to present the visual space in Cubist style because "Cubism can try to look at things from multiple angles at the same time, which of course is something that the script does as well."

The "dominant visual statement" of her set design is the desert itself. "All these scenes are kind of half in the desert," Henderson explains. "The desert is drawing all these locations into itself." Sound designer Andy Hohenner, in considering how to capture that same desert, felt the dominant aural impression should be "How quiet the desert can be." So his challenge was to reproduce "the sound of silence, how to incorporate that so the audience will notice that they're hearing it."

In a very early scene, an elderly man lands in rancher Iris' house so tired, thirsty and hungry from his bout with the desert that he passes out on her floor. The mixture of humor, kindness, resignation and frankness in their exchange signals that the play does not sacrifice characters to issues. And yet the harsh realities will speak for themselves. As she points to a small hanging scenic piece with a bit of sun painted on it, Henderson explains that the actual set piece will be "made of little ribbons so actors enter out of the sun—that will be really cool, especially when you have people dying in the desert."

Fortunately for the actors, the experience will only be metaphorical. But Ordaz' play does reference real events and deaths. And when the actors introduce themselves and their reasons for wanting to be involved in the play, they reveal that the uncompromising desert of the border crossing may not be entirely metaphorical.

Most of the actors claimed to know someone who crossed the border illegally (Alvarado frames the issue as one of migrants rather than immigrants); some knew of people who, discouraged by the recent political turmoil over the issue, were on the verge of returning to Mexico saying, "What's the use." One actor, after reporting that he himself had entered the country illegally through the desert, said, "I want to give voice to those who can't give it themselves."

VISITOR'S GUIDE TO ARIVACA (MAP NOT TO SCALE), a Teatro Visión bilingual production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 11 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $7–$45. (408.272.9926)

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