Borderlands Theater has tagged its season, "What's Under that Skirt? A Borderline Look at Gender."
Two of the season's three plays are contemporary works written by women. First came She Was My Brother, which dealt with a fascinating issue but was not very effective dramatically. The second and current offering is Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman, by Sabina Berman. It's funny and thoughtful, and though it is somewhat flawed, it's the production, not the script, that hasn't quite found its footing.
Borderlands Theater has a specific vision, unique among the numerous theaters which have established themselves in Tucson's art-friendly community. It includes a commitment to presenting new plays, especially those which look at issues relating to life on the border. But this "border" is not limited to our geographic juncture with Mexico.
There are many types of borders and boundaries, invisible or not, which separate individuals, cultures, families, the sexes and even sexuality itself. Borderlands chooses material which addresses those who are often marginalized because they straddle these lines and consequently live with conflict, from within and without. Life on the border—the edge—provides no lack of grist for the dramatist's mill.
Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman is set in Mexico City in the 1990s. Gina (Lissa Staples) is a successful businesswoman who is in love with Alberto (Robert Encila), an attractive liberal journalist who is working on a manuscript about Pancho Villa, a book he wants to "smell of horses and sweat and gunpowder." She wants a committed, intimate relationship, something he seems not only to have no interest in, but is incapable of delivering. He's prone to disappearing for months at a time, but Gina always welcomes him back, albeit rather guiltily, because she knows she's not going to get from him what she wants. She tries to assuage her guilt by insisting on tea and talk before they hop into bed. But tea and talk does not top Alberto's priorities, and Gina succumbs to his passion.
Thus begins a Latino take on the postmodern version of the battle of the sexes, between the progressive man still bound by his machismo and the liberated woman who still wants and needs a man and his love.
One of the most successful elements of this piece is Berman's humor, which manifests moments into the first scene as Gina and her friend Paulina (Annabelle Nunez) discuss Alberto's imminent return. Gina, betraying her determination to insist on what she needs this relationship to be, fantasizes, and her fantasy is played out for us: A dashing Alberto bursts through the door, gathering her in a passionate embrace and carrying her to the bedroom—all set to the theme from Gone With the Wind.
The play of the fantastic against the real is one of the best features of this piece, providing an opportunity to offer the age-old story of man vs. woman in a new way. But what the play seems to conclude is that, even with all the challenges to gender roles in the last 40 or so years, the story has pretty much stayed the same.
Berman's greatest invention is a vain, strutting and mythically proportioned Pancho Villa, who dispenses relationship advice as Alberto struggles to win Gina back after she has given up on him. Roberto Guajardo hilariously embodies this macho revolutionary, who, in spite of his work to liberate Mexican citizens from demagoguery, has overlooked the possibility that this principle might also apply to the male/female relationship.
What really drives the play is the presence of this fantasy character. And what really drives this production is the energy Guajardo injects into an often-stumbling effort at storytelling.
Director Eva Zorrilla Tessler brings the right sensibility to her approach, but the scenes seem patched together and don't flow freely from one to another. Transitions tend to take too long, which impedes the development of an effective pace. And this, in turn, contributes to a lack of clarity regarding the play's intentions, robbing it of real impact.
The performances are a mixed bag as well. Guajardo is fully committed to his bigger-than-life Pancho Villa, and Encila offers a fleshed-out Alberto, but the other actors still seem to be grasping at their characters instead of having become them.
Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman offers a thoughtful and imaginative script, an inventive approach to its subject matter and plenty of humor. Although this is an uneven production, Borderlands should be praised for its commitment to material which no other theater in town dares present. All of us who live on the border—or on the edge—are better for having experienced it.