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One of playwright Anton Chekhov’s favorite dictums was that if you showed a gun in the first act of your play, you better make damn sure it’s used by the end of the play. Los Angeles-born, New York-based playwright Matthew Paul Olmos happily flips that dictum on its head in i put the fear of mexico in ‘em which is receiving its world premiere at Chicago Dramatists as part of Teatro Vista’s 22nd season.

An automatic assault weapon is shown in the first minutes of this 95-minute play and waved around constantly, but never fired. Death has other means of manifesting itself south of the border. Guns may be part of parcel and parcel of Mexico’s bloody drug war, but they are by no means the only weapons used by the narcos as the fate met by the play’s supporting cast can attest. Appearances can be deceiving and dangerous, Olmos points out over and over again, especially if they feed into our worst prejudices. What happens when you mix those prejudices with a parent’s overprotective love for his child? Is that combination a recipe for disaster?

An American couple, Jonah (Bryn Packard) and Adray (Cheryl Graeff) decide at the spur of the moment to drive down to Tijuana for the day. They leave their teenage daughter Angela behind, even though they are concerned about her sudden interest towards a young Mexican boy named Javier. Javier’s parents, Efren (Miguel Nuñez) and Juana (Charin Alvarez), are equally concerned about their son’s welfare: they have sent him to a Los Angeles school where such interracial romances are not viewed favorably.

From left to right: Bryn Packard, Charin Alvarez, Miguel Nuñez and Cheryl Graeff. Photo by Art Carrillo.

When Jonah and Adray decide to step off the beaten path in search of some artwork, a machine-gun waving Efren and Juana kidnap them. They want to confront Jonah and Adray with their own stereotypes after feeling slighted by them. The questions Efren asks them are uncomfortable, the nicknames he gives them as demeaning as any coming from the other side of the border. Juana takes Jonah to a stereotypical Tijuana bar where he is confronted by archetypes that turn out to be anything but: the stripper with a heart of gold (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel in a heart-wrenching performance) who dreams of moving to LA to give birth to her first born in a nice house; and her pimp, who dreams of winning a dance contest (Marvin Quijada in one of three deliberately over-the-top roles).

Efren, meanwhile, tries to talk some sense to Adray while playing up the stereotypes of the macho man. And then, director Ricardo Gutierrez throws his audience off balance by having both Nuñez and Graeff play, in the blink of an eye, both Javier and Angela, teens at the cusp of discovering their own sexuality. The scenes are tender, full of innocence, playful, a sharp contrast to the parental confrontations and misunderstandings taking place hundreds of miles away. Gutierrez throws another wrench to the proceedings when, towards the end, both Gonzalez-Cadel and Quijada play the teenage lovebirds as their relationship sours. Are we seeing the real flesh and bone kids or a projection of their parents’ worst fears?

Gutierrez and Olmos constantly play with our notions of what is real behavior and what is perceived, stereotypical behavior. Is the police officer who stumbles on the kidnapping playing the role of a corrupt, crazed cop, or is he actually one? And when all is said and done, how will the parents’ behavior influence their children’s? The play ends inconclusively with an event that hints at tragedy.

Adray (Cheryl Graeff) and Juana (Charin Alvarez) try to see eye to eye in this scene of “i put the fear of mexico in ’em”. Photo by Art Carrillo.

i put the fear of Mexico in ‘em’s premise may prove hard to swallow for many. And, indeed, some of its most egregious plot holes threaten to hinder the proceedings. Not only is it never made quite clear why or how Efren and Juana were able to send Javier to an LA school (do they have relatives in the area who watch over him?) but, how where they able to identify Angela’s parents once they crossed the border if they’ve never met? Fortunately, Gutierrez’s direction, the play’s brilliant cast and Regina García’s set design more than compensate for the play’s weaknesses. Especially Cheryl Graeff and the always brilliant Charin Alvarez, both embodying a mother’s overprotective love for their children and the boundaries they are willing to cross for their child’s sake. Even though they never quite pull the trigger of that assault weapon, they are lionesses defending their litter regardless of the consequences.

i put the fear of méxico in ’em
When: Ends December 9
Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue, Chicago.
How much: $25
Showtimes: Thursday and Friday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 8 p.m. and Sunday, 3 p.m. Exceptions:  There is an added show, Monday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m. No show Thursday, November 22.
Info: teatrovista.org or (773) 599-9280.

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