Stage 2 does it again…

I took a drive on Saturday evening up to Pacifica to watch my friend Sam V. perform in a play that I had never hear of before meeting him.  He was a cast member of “Bless Me, Ultima” and was nice enough to do a brief interview for my podcast.  You can hear him on Episode 17.  He said the story was an incredibly moving one and boy was it ever.

Silvia Gonazales S. has written a script that is based on actual events and I was astonished at how absolutely relevant it is in today’s political climate.  With immigration reform being such a hot button issue, the timing of producing this play couldn’t have been better.  When I read the synopsis of the play on her website, I thought “My, my, my, this is gonna be one heavy play.”  But as I watched, I don’t feel like what her site described was the same play.  The core of the story was the same, but in a more scaled back and intimate way.

Boxcar (El Vagon) is the story of 4 Mexican men and 1 El Salvadorian student that are trying to make it to the U.S.  The men are locked in an airtight boxcar at the beginning of the show and slowly we watch as their time inevitably runs out.  For the Mexicans, their journey is to find work.  For the El Salvadorian, his journey is for asylum.  But in truth all 5  people are on this path for hope. As the story unfolds, the Mexican men are really only trying to provide a better life for their families back home.  Finding a job in the States in order to send money to their families back home is such a high priority for these people, and I found that admirable.  Thinking back on the show, though, I cannot recall what the student is hoping to achieve.  He is forced to leave home by his mother after the murder of his father.  Is he going to be seeking justice for his father? Is his goal simply to hide? I am still unsure.  Did I miss something?  (That’s totally possible.)  Four of the men don’t survive the trip, and the one that lives is questioned by the authorities.

The play opens with a brutal but brief assault on Noel (Sam Valenzuela), a young El Salvadorian anthropology student.  After the blackout that follows, we meet Manuel (Ramon Bustos), a Mexican man trying to make it into the U.S.  He has been stopped 9 times by border policeman Roberto (Steve Ortiz), but swears it’s been “much less than that.”  Roberto’s partner, Bill (Gary Pugh-Newman) is not one to allow “these kind of people” into the country and takes his job with the utmost seriousness.  As the conversation in the scene builds, Manuel essentially says to Roberto, “why are you giving me such a hard time when I just want to be able to make a living just like you.  You, who are the same origin as me, a fellow Latino.”  This gets Roberto thinking.  In the blackout that followed, the stage curtains part and reveal a boxcar interior.  On the far side of stage left, a single wooden chair is slightly downstage of a multi drawer white filing cabinet.  When the lights focus on stage left, the border police enter with Noel and begin to ask him what happened in the boxcar to lead to the death of the others.  While Noel refuses to talk to the authorities, he remembers and the lights switch focus to the boxcar.  The rest of the play is told in this way through Noel’s memories as he sits terrified, waiting to be deported.

While this play has a serious message, it’s expertly written with several comedic moments in the first half as we get to know and like the characters.  Then, in what is the second half of the play, your heart races as these characters slowly and intensely suffocate.  During the last fifteen minutes of the show, nearly every nose in the audience was experiencing the sniffles.  I stole a few glances at my fellow audience members and saw many tear filled eyes and hands clutching tissues, ready to dab at that unruly nose or leaky eye.

Silvia Gonzalez S. doesn’t shy away from the issue of immigrant exploitation and the shameless way America disregards the working class folk who have made this country what it is.  During one of my favorite moments of the show, Roberto and Bill are arguing about the exploitation of immigrant people and he tells the story of the Chinese Americans that worked on the railroad from one coast while some of the laborers worked on it from the other and met up in the middle.  When you look for any pictures of that glorious moment when all that hard work reaches its achievement, who do you see? Not the people who put blood and sweat into it.

courtesy of

 Nope, you see a bunch of well to do men in suits setting a sledge-hammer on the final spike, The Golden Spike.  I have to admit that I felt ashamed.  Then Roberto goes on to say that we take advantage of them because we can pay them less knowing that they can’t complain about it to the authorities. So they get advised to go to get government aid because they are making such little money.  Yet we complain that they use it.  They live in cramped apartments because that’s the only way to keep a roof over their head.  (That one made me feel guilty for laughing at jokes about those situations.)  During a monologue, he says “When I see those callused hands, I know that they are only coming here to work.” I just loved that line.

In the end, Roberto and Noel leave the boxcar.  Did they leave together in solidarity?  Did Roberto just give up this kind of life?  Did Noel actually make it?  It’s a typical open-ended finale for this type show, so that people can talk about it and make their own choices on what they hope came to pass.

 The only things that I would hope to be adjusted by this weekend’s performances would be the transitions from scene to scene when there’s a  blackout with music, and the character of Bill crying in a scene toward the end of the show.  There are I believe 4 blackouts that happen and they have a music cue added to them. I don’t know why, but it felt like there is a long time that I was sitting there waiting for the next scene to begin.  It could have just been me, I will totally admit that.  So for the character of Bill to cry…hmm…When his partner Roberto is giving this great argument about America being the land of hope and the model country of the world, Bill is crying in the background.  I don’t mean like he’s sobbing like a kid who’s doggie just got run over.  It’s a silent cry, but for this hard ass, by the book, I-ain’t-losing-my-job-cuz-I-need-it S.O.B., I found it took me out of the play and made him seem inauthentic. I can understand that the actor may want to show that the character isn’t such a bad guy. This isn’t the way to do that.  I would rather have preferred a gentle hand on the shoulder, or a some other small motion of friendship.  The crying was just too much.

All that aside, the cast is very good with some outstanding performances by Sam Valenzuela and also Glen Caspillo as Pepe, who was an artist on that stage, and Jason Bustos as Huero.  Sam’s dual performance as the frightened young student at the deportation office and the friendly, nervous traveling guy was well thought out and believable.  If I had to give a suggestion for him, I’d say don’t shake so much when you meet Manuel in the boxcar. ;-).  Mr. Caspillo is a wonder to watch.  The moment that he entered, he drew you in.  Even when he was dead, I found myself looking over at him.  Mr. Bustos had a big brash character that demanded a big personality to truly bring Huero to life which he accomplished easily.  There were a few moments where he would turn in a way that I thought would be counter intuitive, but it must not have been that big of a deal, since I don’t remember the details.

It’s hard to describe the emotional ride I went on as I witnessed this smart and inspiring play.  Should you see it?  HELL YEAH!

But you have to see it this weekend as Sunday, May 8 is their final show! Remember, since this is a Stage 2 Production, the show is free, but give yourself some karma points by dropping a few bucks in their donation bucket.

Check here for the details of the show!

These are a few of my favorite things…

and my favorite people…

Episode 17! 2 (The Re-Do)

(Click to play)

For show notes, click HERE

I guess I left one of the tracks on mute when I uploaded the podcast.  It’s all fixed now!  Sorry!!

Company Bow
Company Bows

Taboo topic gets a voice…Bravo!

This afternoon, I attended a performance at the Pacifica Spindrift Players Stage 2.  I was treated, um…I don’t know if “treated” is the right word.  It’s not often that I have personally witnessed a script tackle an issue head on while being both very insightful, funny, and genuinely moving.  The play Coping Through Pain written and directed by Elizabeth Fatum was exactly that experience.

Susan (Maggie de Vera) is a woman who has a “unique” way of coping with stress and emotion.  This play was brought to life because, like all great theatre before, it’s a necessary topic that needs to be brought to light for the safety of those involved.

The lights went down in the audience and came up on the stage that had a podium, a white board on an easle, and a chair behind the podium; all of which are stage right of center. When the first few actors came on set, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  It seemed like it was supposed to be improvised interactions between various groups.  Then, enter Susan and you get sucked in by her presence.  She begins as a quiet demure woman somewhat clumsy, but when needed, she becomes assertive until she accomplishes her goal, then goes back to quiet and unassuming.  And she makes you laugh while doing it.   A quick lesson in acting: playing the opposites within moments or beats of each other create interest and energy.  Susan uses the following during the opening scene: quiet and mousey  to strong and assertive and then back which is funny when done well, and Ms. de Vera was right on the money.

The funny thing about this is that once she gets the actors on stage to leave, she starts the show as though she were presenting to us a lecture about Controlling Uncontrollable Things.  She writes the acronym on the board – C.U.T.  She begins to explain that emotions and stress are things that are uncontrollable items in life that actually can be controlled.  She begins to use an example of a volcano and is suddenly interrupted by a loud thump backstage and then some of the other actors re-enter the stage and play out a scene, and you come to realize that those actors are the physical representations of Susan’s thoughts that show the audience glimpses into Susan’s past and private life which feature Stephanie Rose Neimann who plays Young Susan.  This explains the opening of the show.  Clever. Following the departure of the “thoughts”, there is a small interaction between Susan with a person that was a focus in the scene before. Once Susan “gathers” her thoughts, she continues with the presentation aspect but is again interrupted.  The play is told through this manner of storytelling.

As you can probably guess from the acronym, she suffers from Deliberate Self Harm Syndrome and is considered a “cutter.”  This behavior is not unique.  The problem is that it’s such a personal act that no one talks about it.  And it’s personal for any number of reasons.  Sometimes there’s feelings of shame or guilt tied to the action, while some do it because they “feel numb” and are looking to “feel alive.”  This behavior affects millions of people, and in a society that is so full of pressure to fit in, the possibility for it to become worse is high.  Ms. Fatum made it a point to explain in the show that Susan was a bright and well rounded person.  There isn’t a general group that this action encompasses. There is no way to simply look at a person and know if this something that they are going through.    I am grateful that Ms. Fatum has planted her foot in the ground and heaved this issue in the audience’s lap.

There are many great moments throughout this too short 40 minute performance.  One of the most honest, I think, was when Jodie (Kyeshia Arrington)  is talking to Susan and offering her a friendly ear to confide in.  One would think that something so simple and easy could be pulled of by anyone.  That’s the problem.  Nothing is ever that simple.  This particular scene felt so genuine that I felt like I was actually in a high school watching two friends secretly talking.

Another great moment is again Susan interacting with her Mom (Shannon Quinn) after a  flashback.  This was a really well written scene.  The mother was questioning her role in her child’s illness.

The most powerful moment is the point when Susan realizes that while she isn’t hurting anyone else, she is hurting the most important person.  Herself.  At this point, the entire cast is on stage and Susan has just stopped Young Susan from placing another cut on her arm.  Then while in an embrace, the Susans in unison ask for help.  The rest of the cast, also in unison answer the call.  It’s a very moving scene.

Congratulations to Pacifica Spindrift Players Stage 2 for producing an important piece of work for the sake of all those that suffer from this behavior.  While there were a few tiny, tiny choices I would have liked to have seen done in a different way, this was a great debut for Stage 2.  I live in Campbell, and if this is the type of shows that Stage 2 will be performing, I will be more than happy to drive the 53 miles to see another.

My hope for Ms. Fatum is that, while this piece has grown from a 5 minute skit to a 40 minute play, she continues her work on it thus creating a full length 2 act play.  I feel like so many people will be shocked to learn what I have during the 20 minute talk back after the show.  If there is a way to incorporate some of that information into the middle of the play to understand the mindset of a person with this illness it could possibly have a bigger emotional pay off  in the end.  Still, should you ever get the chance to see this show produced elsewhere, please see it.

The Director/Writer and Cast of Coping Through Pain