Ass-kickin' Posole!

Lisandra Tena comes clean on a powerful one-woman show

There are several things you need to know about Guera, a one-woman play by actress/writer Lisandra Tena, the current production at Borderlands Theater.

First, you should know that Tena is an impressively skilled and talented practitioner of the theater arts.

Then, it's important to know that her piece is autobiographical, which sometimes makes it difficult to follow.

Next, in spite of this, Guera is a powerful piece. It's clever and interactive and full of comic lightness balancing some densely weighted material.

Finally, you should see it.

Borderlands continues to impress with its new leadership, which is building on the solid foundation that Barclay Goldsmith and others laid for the theater. It holds a unique place in Tucson's rich theater population. One of the cornerstones of that foundation is the group's emphasis on fostering the development and production of new plays. New producing director Marc Pinate has shown himself to be solidly supportive of this tenant of the theater's mission, and choosing to include Tena's new play in the season, provides us with an opportunity to see a fresh take on human experience, grounded specifically in Latino culture.

It's easy to see why he is impressed with Tena and her talents. Guera is a work of substance delivered in a fresh playmaking context. Her extensive theater experience is obvious in the way she has shaped this play and the expertise with which she delivers it.

The play is an echo of Tena's own very personal experience, particularly as it relates to her family and their angst-ridden history. But the subject spreads beyond a merely personal account. Although by using the experience she knows so well, we see and hear an account that rings with truth, the way she synthesizes her experience creates a story that resonates beyond the personal.

In fact, the play's autobiographical nature was unclear to me even as I was experiencing it. To be fair, Tena does let us know early in the performance, in an unusual sort of way, that the show is drawn from her experience, which includes a distant and abusive father, a violent stepmother, and a drug-addicted mother who leaves her small children alone to scrounge for money to get high. But some of us are trying to understand the show's unusual format and are not totally clear about what she is telling us and its importance.

However, it's this format that makes the show wonderful. Tena as her character, a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, interacts with the audience, allowing us to choose the course—and courses—of the show. The set-up is this: Members of the audience are customers at the restaurant where she works to celebrate some event. This is established by Tena's actually coming into the audience and taking a poll, sort of, about what event we are celebrating. Our meal, she tells us, consists of four courses and we are asked to choose between a couple of choices offered for each course. We have been given, with our program, a "menu" with these choices listed.

For instance, we decided on the appetizer, "El Mexicano—Our most tender cut of carne, beer-battered and deep-fried at 3 a.m." This turns out to be a wonderfully poignant moment in which Tena recreates an evening's outing of a carefully groomed man, joining others with his 12-pack of Budweiser, dancing with and comforting what we imagine is a young child. There are no words, just the music being played at the event. It is such a tender and loving tribute to a father who was not always tender and loving. But at least he was there, unlike Tena's mother.

So, after deciding that we want "Ass-kickin' Posole" as the soup course and "Promises, Promises" as our main course, Tena disappears for a quick moment to prepare for the scene that is the "course" we chose. With the help of lighting, this shift in and out of scenes and characters is never confusing, although the particulars of a scene sometimes are. These multiple layers of the piece are a lot to try to grasp, especially since they are part of such a unique style, but they are also part of what makes the show richly captivating.

Tena plays all the characters with great depth and sympathy, and she slips effortlessly from character to character. As our waitress, she absolutely charms us, and because she chats us up between these meaty monologues, we are always willing to travel with her.

The explanation of the autobiographical aspect of the piece is contained in a segment completely unlike all the other conventions Tena uses. She approaches a microphone and delivers this information like a stand-up comedian. It makes delivering this information theatrical instead of simply stating the facts straight-on, but we have been hit with so much in the first few minutes and are trying to get used to these conventions. Also, the switching between Spanish and English, along with a sometimes accent and cadence of speech, is unfamiliar to the ears of many of us. Consequently, we don't always understand what's being said. And that's OK for the most part, except we really do need to understand this bit where she gives the background for what we will be seeing.

There's another aspect of being autobiographical that can sometimes be problematic. The storyteller's story is totally familiar and clear to her; it isn't familiar to us. One has to be aware of that and make sure there is included enough info we are clear as well.

These are some things Tena might want to consider if she continues to develop this piece. But what we see on stage now is intriguing, and funny and sometimes downright heart-wrenching. Tena has created a show in which her personality charms us, and the content of which holds our rapt attention and sinks with sympathy into our hearts.

Yep. You really should see this.

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