Boxed In

Fancy footwork gets characters off the ropes in Elaine Romero's 'Barrio Hollywood.'

The heart is the soul's warden. Building impregnable walls with a too-tenacious love, the heart can isolate you from normal society and trap you in a small cell of obsession. But the heart can also be a liberator, handing you love like a new suit and a $20 bill and sending you off into the wide world with hope and confidence.

Elaine Romero's play Barrio Hollywood hinges on whether love will imprison or liberate its characters. A promising young boxer named Alex Moreno sustains a head injury that plunges him into an irreversible coma. His devoted sister, an ambitious folklorico dancer named Graciela, and his mother, a harmlessly self-centered and religious-to-the-point-of-superstitious woman simply called Ama, care for him at home, determined that he will recover despite every indication to the contrary. One of the young doctors who first treated Alex, Michael, becomes romantically involved with Graciela, further complicating the situation with his medical realism and his status as an Anglo outsider in a Hispanic household.

Tucsonan Romero sets her play in a neighborhood just west of the Santa Cruz, near downtown, and implies that while Barrio Hollywood is an active center of local Mexican-American life, it is also something of a dump. Frankly, there are far more dismal places to live here than Barrio Hollywood, and Romero wisely doesn't dwell too much on young people trying to claw their way out of the neighborhood. Indeed, one of her strengths in this script is her ability to treat certain issues without either grazing them superficially or wielding them as bludgeons.

A mother abandoned by a no-account husband, a young woman who dreams of success by mastering and teaching one of her culture's most appealing and exportable art forms, a young man dreaming of success through a socially acceptable use of his fists, women's lives controlled by an insensate lump of male flesh--these are the ingredients of a melodramatic telenovela. Yet Romero resists pushing these characters and situations into cliché. She writes with grace, honesty and wit, keeping the story grounded in a real place populated by authentic human beings.

Barrio Hollywood was last seen here about five years ago in a reading by Damesrocket Theatre, back when downtown's theaters and galleries outnumbered its bars and tattoo parlors. The play has been widely read and workshopped since then, and it's now receiving its first full staging by Borderlands Theater. From what I recall of the version given by Damesrocket, Romero has tightened up the play's structure, made the scenes flow more smoothly and, if I'm not mistaken, reduced the role of Alex. Everything now flows as gracefully as a dancer's skirts. Indeed, this is the strongest Romero play yet to be seen in Tucson; the characters are fuller and more natural than in ¡Curanderas!, and the scenes develop more patiently than in the head-spinning Before Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Every element of the Borderlands production falls deftly into place, especially the apt musical selections and John Longhofer's set design, with the walls cut jaggedly to suggest the skyline of the Tucson Mountains. Kent Nicholson directs the cast with an eye for subtle, ever-shifting reactions, and either he or choreographer Eva Tessler should especially be applauded for one silent sequence in which Alex, Graciela and Ama circle the stage, passing among them the gestures of their obsessions--boxing, dancing, genuflecting.

As for the cast, Mario Figueroa Lopez doesn't have a great deal to do other than shadowbox and look comatose, but in his two or three scenes with dialog, he does a nice job of establishing Alex's loving yet competitive relationship with Graciela. Dana Jepson's Michael, the Anglo doctor, is an appealing fellow, sincerely interested in Graciela yet unsure how to fit into her family and her troubled life.

Rosanne Couston does an excellent job of placing Ama in her own little world without making her seem either demented or foolish. And over the past four years, the presence of Marissa Garcia in a play has become a guarantee of quality. Over the course of a few lines, emotions play over her face like distant sheet lightning on a summer night, teasing us with the possibility of an emotional torrent that actually arrives only rarely. She performs with intelligence but not calculation, with heart but not hamminess.

Audiences beyond Tucson might be confused by the title of Barrio Hollywood. The play has nothing to do with the overwrought phoniness of Tinseltown, although it does revolve around dreams and self-delusion. At any rate, her well-crafted barrio characters earn Elaine Romero her Hollywood ending.

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