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Quiet Disappointments 

The premiere of 'Hippie Mexicana' shows the play could still use some work

It's 1972; welcome to the home of a typical Hispanic family in Phoenix.

Fifteen-year-old Louie turns on and tunes out in the basement, listening to Doors 45s and drying weed in his sister's Easy-Bake Oven. Eighteen-year-old Carlos paints peace signs on the mailbox, hoping to make it an inhospitable place for his draft notice to nest in, and seeks long-distance enlightenment from a guru. Nineteen-year-old Ana is trying to go vegetarian and organic, which is really tough when her tia Norma is dumping lard into the tamales. Kique, the eldest brother in the family, is a serious student working on his archaeology degree; out in the family's untilled field, he finds what may be Hohokam artifacts.

The obvious question: Can you dig it?

Evangeline Ordaz's Hippie Mexicana is partly an affectionate nostalgia trip, looking back at a time when a "trip" didn't necessarily involve going away or falling down. Well, not going away, at least. The play is also a snort of exasperation over the institutionalized racism that kept a qualified man of part-Native American heritage from conducting credible scientific research on his own property. It's also a bittersweet story of how a bunch of likable, laid-back, optimistic people wind up 20 years later in dead-end jobs, and how these people who value their cultural and family history ultimately decide it makes sense to sell the old family home.

Hippie Mexicana is getting its premiere performances courtesy of Borderlands Theater, and while it's the sort of play and production that one really wants to enjoy, it doesn't quite work.

Ordaz does have a wry sense of humor that she makes her characters gently turn against themselves. In one running joke, the family--especially the proud but dotty matriarch, Flor--distances itself from common mestizo Mexican Americans: "We're from New Mexico," they maintain. "We're Spanish." Flor speaks with a thick accent, which the younger generation mocks good-naturedly. "Where chew brother?" she asks one of the kids. He replies, "First of all, my brother is not a Jew."

Ordaz also raises good points about how difficult it is for ordinary people to fight casual racism, without turning the play into a tragic-heroic struggle against The Man. Yet in keeping the conflict low-key, she has a hard time infusing the script with much real drama. Although certain events and conflicts do play out before us, by the end, it somehow feels like all the important things have happened offstage. It's like an old reel of home movies, amusing little slices of life that almost never depict the truly central events in a family's history.

(Ordaz does introduce the home-movie metaphor in the first scene, but what she intended to do with it remained a mystery last weekend; a video sequence that was supposed to be projected at the very end never got past the computer-software menu.)

And while Ordaz has a nice way with the casual humor in people's conversations, her serious dialogue can be wooden. Everything Kique, the archaeology student, says sounds like it was intended for the printed page rather than the human voice. Actor David Felix does everything he can to bring it to life, but his lines remain as fossilized as the artifacts in the back yard.

Either Ordaz or director Armando Molina, the playwright's husband, has made an odd and off-putting choice for the youngest character, Anita. In the first and last scenes, set in 1992, Anita, a budding attorney with a social conscience, is played straightforwardly by Marissa Garcia. But in the 1972 scenes, when Anita is 5, Garcia has to hunch around the stage manipulating a child-sized doll. It just doesn't work in the context of this play, and Garcia would be perfectly capable of making us accept her as a 5-year-old girl without all the Betsy-Wetsy make-believe.

The rest of the cast is variable from actor to actor and from scene to scene. Most consistent are Alida Gunn as the progressive, self-assured young Ana, and Eva Tessler as Flor, a sputtering-out Mexican Spitfire entering an early mental decline. Some of the others weren't fully living in their characters in every scene last weekend, and Norma Medina, who always had the right stance and attitude, wasn't yet fully in command of her lines. And what's the point of the talented Tim Janes playing the mailman with an Irish accent? Just because it's possible to use a funny accent, or to break our reliance on realism by putting a doll in front of an actress, doesn't mean it's a good idea.

The well-intentioned characters in Hippie Mexicana get by, but not as well as they hope; similarly, the play itself, despite its potential, ends up a quiet disappointment.

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