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Slim means, big dreams

A Mexicali troupe struggling to be heard gets to share its talents at a Spanish-language festival in Los Angeles.

October 16, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexicali, Mexico — THERE'S a simple rule one should always observe in Mexico's vast, unforgiving northern wastelands, says Angel Norzagaray: Move too fast, and you'll dry out and die.

So Norzagaray has developed what he calls a "desert aesthetic," a list of artistic guidelines for making theater on the edge of nature's blast furnace. First, do away with inessential action and extraneous dialogue. Second, pare sets and props to a minimum: a red clown's nose, some strategically placed chairs, a long, narrow paper roll painted to look like a stretch of endless asphalt highway.

Third, and most important, never forget where you are -- or how you got there. The scorching terrain along the U.S. border can be a desolate, even deadly place.

Yet its spare beauty captivates. Its austerity imposes discipline. Its sheer openness leaves room to imagine and experiment, away from the rigid cultural orthodoxies of Mexico City, far to the south. Here in the desert, Norzagaray says, an artist can be truly free to invent a cultural scene from the ground up, then nurture and watch it grow.

And though Mexican theater still tends to be heavily concentrated in the country's chaotic capital, Norzagaray and his collaborators are determined to put Mexicali on the nation's, if not the world's, cultural map, one play at a time. "It's impossible to speak of theater in Mexico. You can't. We're an enormous country," says Norzagaray, an actor, director, playwright, university administrator, newspaper columnist, husband and father of two (soon to be three) young boys. "And I am 3,500 kilometers, 2,000 miles, from the Federal District [Mexico City]."

Fortuitously, though, Norzagaray is only 4 1/2 hours by car southeast of Los Angeles, where he and his intrepid theater company, Mexicali a Secas, will be headed this week. On Thursday, they'll open a 10-day run as a featured attraction of the fourth annual FITLA, the Spanish-language acronym for the International Latino Theatre Festival of Los Angeles.

The company will perform three plays at the Ford Theatre and downtown's Los Angeles Theatre Center, plus a signature piece, "Cartas al pie de un arbol" (Letters at the Foot of a Tree), a haunting, lyrically autobiographical play by Norzagaray, on Oct. 26 at Garrison Theater at Scripps College in Claremont. As in previous years, the festival will present works by U.S. and foreign artists encompassing a wide variety of theatrical styles and genres, including four performances at REDCAT by the avant-garde Catalan theater-dance artist Marta Carrasco.

Mexicali a Secas -- a colloquialism that means "having to do specifically with Mexicali" and also puns on secas, the Spanish word for "dry" -- performs in repertory, allowing its members to showcase their formidable versatility. Its home, a 319-seat theater built by the federal government in the 1960s as part of a national culture initiative, regularly hosts performances by arts groups from throughout Mexico.

Theater is a lifelong calling but not a full-time occupation for the members of Mexicali a Secas, a loose collective of about 12 actors, directors and designers. Norzagaray carries a full load as an administrator at the Autonomous University of Baja California. He writes his plays late at night or on planes and says he plans to break away from the FITLA festival for a few hours so he can attend his son's scheduled birth by caesarean section at a Mexicali hospital.

Other company members hold jobs ranging from plumber to director of communications for Mexicali. Felipe Tututi, a former student of Norzagaray's who will perform with him at the Ford in Carles Pons' existential clown show "Gracias, Querida" (Thank You, Darling), is a carpenter. Norzagaray's actor brother Heriberto, who handles promotion for Mexicali a Secas, will perform in Los Angeles in Victor Castillo's play "Recuerdos de la Ira" (a.k.a. "Villa y Zapata"), which posits a reunion in limbo between the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Emiliano Zapata. "We all do everything," says Angel Norzagaray.

The company's nonhierarchical, let's-put-on-a-show-in-a-barn mind-set suits Mexicali, an unpretentious, self-made city of more than a half-million that is barely a century old. Residents here are accustomed to low-key cultural exchanges: They take in a steady diet of U.S.-beamed television, celebrate both Halloween and Day of the Dead, and make frequent trips to Calexico, Calif., to shop, buy gas, work and, in some cases, live.

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