San Diego Rep to tackle border-related tensions in ‘Tortilla Curtain’
If you go
What: ‘Tortilla Curtain’ (based on the novel by T.C. Boyle)
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, March 17-April 8
Where: Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego
Contact: (619) 544-1000 or sdrep.org
By Pat Sherman
Following on the heels of La Jolla Playhouse’s production of “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” San Diego Repertory Theatre will further examine the dreams, fears and apprehensions surrounding Southern California’s trans-border experience with a stage adaptation of “The Tortilla Curtain.”
The production, based on T.C. Boyle’s gripping novel of the same name, explores the issue of illegal immigration through the viewpoint of two couples living in close proximity to each other in Topanga Canyon. They include the affluent and idealistic Kyra and Delaney Mossbacher, and Cándido Rincón and his pregnant wife, América, homeless immigrants camping in the canyon below the Mossbacher’s gated community.
As the story unfolds, Cándido and América, who entered the U.S. illegally via the so-called ‘Tortilla Curtain,’ unwittingly and repeatedly collide with the Mossbachers as they search for work and an apartment to raise their child. The resulting miscommunication and misunderstanding between the couples begins to challenge Delaney’s liberal worldview.
“He goes through such a radical transformation,” said playwright Matthew Spangler, who adapted the novel for the stage. “At the beginning of the book he’s a liberal environmentalist and takes all the liberal, progressive lines on almost any issue you can imagine, but by the end of the book he’s sort of the neighborhood vigilante trying to hunt down Cándido with a gun.”
Though each of the characters goes through a psychic shift, the Rep’s artistic director, Sam Woodhouse, said Delaney’s is the most pronounced. “It’s not so much (a shift in) who he his, but what he is capable of doing,” Woodhouse said.
Before paring Boyle’s 355-page novel down to a 90-minute script, Spangler had discussions with Boyle, whose works also include “Drop City,” and “The Road to Wellville,” which became a film staring Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Broderick.
“He’s been very generous and supportive,” Spangler said. “When I’ve asked him things like, ‘Is this important to you? Can I cut this or change that?’, his response has always been, ‘Do what you think is right. You’re the playwright; I trust you.’ That’s kind of inspiring to hear the author say.”
In both the novel and the play, immigration is addressed from three distinct viewpoints, that of Mr. and Mrs. Rincón, and of Delaney Mossbacher.
“I found that really exciting, so I’ve written the script as monologues,” Spangler said. “Three main characters speak directly to the audience, so you’re constantly shifting points of view.”
Through the course of the fast-moving “Tortilla Curtain,” the Rep has the challenge of delivering a rape, car accident, forest fire and landslide.
“It’s a tricky piece to adapt,” said Spangler, who teaches playwriting and immigration studies at San Jose State University. ”There are these epic things that happen, but I think that’s kind of the magic of theatre, because so much of that will ultimately happen in the audience’s imaginations.”
Spangler and Woodhouse both said they read the novel shortly after its 1995 release, immediately envisioning it as a play.
“Immigration is a topic that gets a lot of political discourse in our society, but I think there’s relatively little of that in art, and especially in theatre,” Spangler said.
For Woodhouse, one of the most evocative passages in the book (now a scene in the play) involves Boyle’s description of coyotes howling in the canyon.
“It’s an extraordinarily evocative sound,” Woodhouse said. “It’s sensual and scary and seductive and primitive and wise all at the same time. The coyote is a metaphor for a lot of things. … It’s that bugle call of change.”
Spangler, who also adapted T.C. Boyle’s short story, “Killing Babies,” for the stage, said the author’s literary voice and use of dark humor lends itself nicely to the theater.
“Almost all of his works rely on a kind of a satirical, dark and humorous take on his characters,” he said. “He’s like other writers, too, that I think work well on stage, (including) Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever.”
Woodhouse noted the irony of entering 2012 with a production that highlights the struggle of the haves and have-nots, given last year’s deluge of “Occupy” demonstrations.
He said he hopes the audience will walk away questioning how they would react in a situation similar to what unfolds at the conclusion of ‘Tortilla Curtain’s’ 38 scenes.
The production stars Mike Sears (Delaney), Lisel Gorrell-Getz (Kyra), Vivia Font (América) and Kinan Valdez (Cándido), with music by French-Mexican musician and composer Bruno Louchouarn (“A Weekend with Pablo Picasso”).
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