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Crossing To Bear

Teatro Visión's 'Boxcar' tracks the plight of border crossers

By Marianne Messina

THE NEW PLAY at Teatro Visión, Boxcar (El Vagon), might appropriately be called The Crossing. On the floor of the stage where two sets of railroad tracks cross, Roberto (Fred Silva), a member of the U.S. Border Patrol, comes upon Mexican Manuel (Jaime Avelar-Guzmán) crossing over into America. Manuel has done this "crossing" so many times that when Roberto apprehends him, they seem to be old friends. The next day, back on the Mexican side of the border, Manuel joins four other men attempting to cross the border by hiding in a Santa Fe boxcar bound for the United States. Ultimately, they make a crossing of the John Edward variety.

That the play is called Boxcar rather than The Crossing echoes its narrower focus and perhaps suggests that--in spite of Manuel's hopeful refrain, "We are all related"--its ability to strike a human and universal chord is not all it could be. For example, we see the border officers whiling away their long hours by trading historical tidbits about immigrant patterns in America, when it would be far more likely (and enlightening) for them to be discussing horrendous border incidents.

Inspired by a 1987 tragedy in which 18 bodies and one survivor were found in a sealed boxcar in Texas, playwright Silvia González S. chose the title in order to honor those who have died in similar disasters, abandoned in boxcars and truck trailers by the unscrupulous human smugglers called coyotes. And the play really begins to take hold when the five characters face those terrifying moments. We watch the strong, silent Francisco (Andrés Sinohui), the ailing, fatherly Pepe (Mauricio Zamano-Rivera), the sanguine, Amero-phile Huero (Gualo Aguayo), the college boy El Salvadoran, Noel (Alex Perdomo), and Manuel slowly suffer a combination of heat exhaustion, suffocation and hyperthermia (survivors rescued from these sweat boxes have sustained body temperatures as high as 106 degrees).

There is perhaps less nastiness and violence than one might expect inside a dark, sweltering, claustrophobic boxcar, but the few scraps are nicely choreographed by Ted D'Agostino. In not rendering the darkness, however, lighting designer David Ferlauto missed an opportunity to make the death watch more eerie and gripping. Still, full-on performances of the final minutes by Sinohui, Aguayo and Avelar-Guzmán bring the horrific moment home. Avelar-Guzmán gives Manuel such a blasé air of experience, we're sure he can't possibly die so hopelessly. Aguayo makes a convincing shift out of his bravado and into a boy calling for "Mama," and Sinohui's agonizing struggle to breathe as he attempts to die a brave death is something you can feel.

In this scene, which begins with the men screaming and banging frantically on the airtight boxcar door, González S. is also at her best. An exhausted Francisco makes it to his feet and says, "I've never noticed my feet until now. The toes separate when they touch the ground." When Francisco asks Manuel to confess him, he is met with Manuel's more superstitious "Don't knock on the door of death." The tendency of these characters to discuss migratory history even at the moment of death can be a little annoying, but the acting is visceral beyond words.

Boxcar, a Teatro Visión production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through April 4 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. The March 26, 28 and April 2 performances are presented in Spanish. Tickets are $6/$14. (408.272.9926)

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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