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[whitespace] Earthy Drama

'Bernabé' loves his land in Teatro Campesino's new play

By Heather Zimmerman

IT'S FITTING that on its 30th anniversary, Luis Valdez's Bernabé, a play that deals so much in naturalistic themes, would come full circle with a new production at the company for which it was originally written, El Teatro Campesino, the San Juan Bautista-based company founded by Valdez. Teatro Campesino is still very much a family operation--one of Valdez's sons produced and directed this show, and another plays the title role.

Bernabé gives new meaning to the idea that the meek shall inherit the earth. The title character (Anahuac Valdez) is somewhat mentally disabled; the other residents of the small California farming town where he lives consider him the "village idiot." So it's a source of great derision when Bernabé announces that he's in love with La Tierra (the Earth), and he's caught burrowing inside a hole in the ground. It's not hard to see why he might seek some sort of sanctuary, away from the teasing townspeople and particularly his domineering mother, Madre (Kati Valdez). But, of course, there are deeper implications behind Bernabé's passion that show that the "village idiot" may well be the wisest man in town.

The play is essentially a comedy, although the darker, dreamlike second act proves the stronger of the play's two parts. The first half offers a lot of slapstick-style humor as Bernabé's concerned male relatives, El Primo (Jeremiah Martinez) and El Tio (Cesar E. Flores), set him up on a visit with Consuelo (Gracie Serna), the local prostitute, to divert him from his obsession with La Tierra. Flores and Martinez deftly play the straightmen to Valdez's panicked Bernabé.

Funny as some of these episodes are, the second act is more substantial, although it deals in the abstract: Bernabé encounters humanlike incarnations of La Luna, the moon (Juan Martinez), La Tierra (Serna) and their stern, all-powerful mother, El Sol, the sun (Kati Valdez). The second act builds on the first by using some inspired double-casting, emphasizing the duality of Madre and El Sol, controlling maternal types, and Consuelo and La Tierra, sensual "earthy" women, by using the same actresses for each set of roles. Curiously, both actresses are more convincing as celestial deities than as their earthly counterparts.

Director Kinan Valdez has staged Bernabé in the round--a provocative choice for a play that works so strongly with symbols of nature. Arranging the audience in a circle acknowledges the cyclical aspect of nature and lends an almost ritualistic feel to the second act. It feels appropriate for a play about one who's really in touch with the Earth, as El Sol implies is the case with Bernabé. She tells him that he is the last of a race of people who loved and respected the earth--a clear reference to the indigenous peoples of Mexico, especially given El Sol's own Indian-influenced garb.

La Luna has a telling line when he says that Bernabé truly has La Tierra's best interests at heart because "he's Chicano--he's never owned a piece of La Tierra." It's delivered almost as a punch line, and it does elicit knowing laughs from the audience, but at the same time it speaks volumes about the plight of Chicano farmworkers who look to the land for livelihood, but seldom claim ownership of it. Bernabé becomes symbolic of these workers when he proves that he is willing to risk everything for the love of something unattainable.

Bernabé plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm through July 30 at El Teatro Campesino, 705 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista. Tickets are $12 adults/$10 students and seniors/$5 children/$5 all seats on Thursdays. (831.623.2444)

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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