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THEATER REVIEW: “Detained In The Desert” at La Jolla Playhouse

“Detained In The Desert” presents aspects of the Latino reality in a series of vignettes about profiling, unprovoked violence, bullying, the risky business of crossing the border illegally (in this case, at Nogales) and the spreading of hate and lies by anti-immigrant talk radio hosts.

William Virchis directs his Teatro Máscara Mágica in the piece by San Diego-bred playwright Josefina Lopez (perhaps best known for “Real Women Have Curves”) through Sept. 15 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre. The 24-year-old company is beginning its two-year residence through the Playhouse’s Resident Theatre Program.

The talk show host is Lou Becker (Charles Maze), lily white (as we see later in living paleness when he is forced to strip) and busily spewing anti-immigrant venom on his daily Phoenix show “Take Back America.”

We meet Carl the Minuteman (Steven Jensen), dressed in faux military gear, who among other things rides around shooting holes in the plastic water bottles left in the desert near the border by Border Angel Enrique (Dave Rivas), who places them there to help those crossing in search of a better life in the U.S.

A pair of live “Dia de los Muertos” skeletons (Isabela Leon and Zayra Nicifore) act as stage hands, silent Greek chorus and perhaps reminder that for immigrants, sudden and unexpected death is never far away.

These disparate but constant facts of Latino life are distributed through a plot line that tells parallel stories: one, of Becker, who ends up lost in the desert after being abducted by angry Latinos whose relatives were killed as a result of the type of hate he preaches.

The other is that of U.S. citizen Sandra (Alix Mendoza), a victim of profiling by a cop who approaches her as she is parked by the side of a deserted road with boyfriend Matt (Victor Santander).

A bit of a spitfire, Sandra refuses to produce documents, so is hauled to a detention center (“like jail, only temporary,” says the guard played by Christina Murguia).

There Sandra meets a sad piece of her past in cellmate Milagros (Elisa Gonzales), when conversation reveals that Milagros is the high school classmate from the San Fernando Valley who was hounded out of school by classmate taunts of “wetback” and “beaner.” Worse, Sandra admits that she gained acceptance into that gringo world by joining in the name-calling.

The situational vignettes, so familiar to us border dwellers as to seem almost clichéd, are still – along with magical/ghostly elements (skeletons and other phantoms who occasionally roam the stage) the most engaging elements of the play.

Mendoza is a standout as Sandra, even though her eventual meeting with Lou in the desert seems a bit far-fetched. Maze is also excellent.

Kudos to Virchis for fine direction, and to the tech team – Tammy Ray’s lighting and Dave Rivas’ sound design – for a most effective visual and aural presentation.

John Iacovelli’s well-designed and versatile set and Pamela Travo’s costumes are also excellent.

“We’re not doing a play. We’re doing a conversation piece,” Virchis announced before the show, going on to say this show is intended to spark discussion. It should do that.

The details

“Detained in the Desert” plays through Sept. 15 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Adele Shank Theatre (on the UCSD campus), La Jolla.

Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30 pm; matinee Saturday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (800) 838-3006 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.