Soccer and Saints

Borderlands' well-meaning 'Guapa' is burdened with too many plotlines

Borderlands Theater's Guapa, about an aspiring young Latina soccer player, has debuted in Tucson as part of a three-city "rolling world premiere."

This means that after opening at Borderlands, Guapa will go on to "premiere" two more times, at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and the Miracle Theatre in Portland, Ore. The triple-opening is engineered by the National New Play Network, or NNPN, and playwright Caridad Svich and dramaturge Heather Helinksy have been working with all three theaters.

This is a commendable effort—a new play by a well-regarded but still-emerging playwright, staged in Tucson. Svich has penned an award-winning theatrical adaptation of Isabel Allende's novel The House of the Spirits and has won an Obie Lifetime Achievement Award for her numerous off-Broadway plays, many of which have political themes.

Svich's latest is ambitious ... and that's part of the trouble. Despite an interesting setup and a solid production, Guapa is overwhelmed by too many thematic elements, and the production is undermined by several radical shifts in tone.

Guapa is about a contemporary, mixed-race Latino family in a small Texas border town. The family—Aunt Roly (Annabelle Nuñez) and her two children, Lebon (Mario Tineo) and Pepi (Marisa Acosta)—is part-Mexican and has been living near the border for generations.

At some point, two relatives—a young man, Hakim, and a young woman, nicknamed Guapa ("beautiful")—have come to live with the family. The script never makes it clear how Hakim (Adrian Gomez) and Guapa (Gabriela Urias) are related to each other, or to the family.

Hakim is part Latino and part Arab American. (He compares himself to Shakira, the popular Colombian singer of Lebanese heritage.) Guapa's roots are with the Quechua, the native peoples of the Andes. She's had some setbacks—including an abusive stepfather who's now in jail—but she dreams of playing professional soccer.

In the first scene, the extended family sits around the kitchen table, bickering familiarly. The set is dominated by a realistic kitchen, provided by scenic-designer Andres Volovsek.

Directed by Barclay Goldsmith, a Borderlands artistic director, the play is at its best during the kitchen scenes; they roll with a natural rhythm and give a real sense of the family dynamic. The first kitchen interlude sets up Guapa's interesting situation: Here's a complicated family and a young Latino girl who wants to play soccer, even though women are not as respected in the world of sports as men.

However, playwright Svich is not content to simply explore that conflict. She adds more thematic elements as the play goes along, and the end result feels confused.

For instance, the boisterous, naturalistic scenes in the kitchen are intercut with more-lyrical segments filled with video imagery. Stage right from the kitchen is an open space with a screen backdrop; here, Guapa delivers dreamlike monologues. She describes communicating with saints, while behind her, the screen shows images of soccer balls and Southwestern landscapes. These poetic scenes are radically different in style and tone from the rest of the play. Guapa occasionally feels like two different scripts spliced into one.

The quality of the videos and the background music is quite good. Yet despite the array of tech people—videographer Piper Weinberg; technical director Frank Calsbeek; video digital images manager Benjamin Lopez; and video/lights/soundboard operator Devin Wiles—the production had some technical snafus.

The sound during the video and music segments is a bit too loud. Urias has to practically shout to make herself heard in the small space of ZUZI's Theater. On opening night, after intermission, the video failed to restart at first, and there was a discernible pause as the technical team strove to get it running again. Still, the larger problem is not with the videos themselves, but that the tone of the play shifts radically in these scenes.

As Guapa goes on, the playwright keeps piling on the plotlines. Hakim and Lebon have different political views; one is content with capitalism, and the other is not. One cousin's political actions cause Guapa to injure herself. Guapa mysteriously begins to speak the native language of the Quechua. Guapa reveals her history of abuse ... and then soccer comes back in.

Sometimes the play is painfully earnest; sometimes it is lighthearted; sometimes it is naturalistic; sometimes it is lyrical. Guapa tackles themes of gender, sexuality, race, language and ethnic identity, as well as the legacy of imperialism and the importance of political activism. That's a lot, and it's sometimes too much.

As Guapa, Urias looks the part of a young soccer player, with an athletic grace to her movements. But neither the writing nor the acting ever really helped me get a handle on Guapa as a character. Why does she love soccer? How does she really feel about her family members?

The actors try their best to bring life to their characters. Acosta is delightful as Pepi, Guapa's cousin. Gomez does well with Hakim, who aspires to a conventional life, and Tineo is charismatic as the politically charged Lebon. Nuñez is convincing as the well-meaning matriarch who wants to keep everyone together and healthy.

This is a well-intentioned play, with an engaging cast. I found it charming and interesting to see a complicated, mixed-race-Latino family onstage. However, it was hard to track all of the characters' origins and their relationships. The play ultimately was burdened by too many themes and too much back story; the overload made Guapa confusing instead of enlightening.