Brother and Barriers

Borderlands Theater mounts the premiere of a play—set in Tucson—that shows a lot of promise

Among the theaters that have a Tucson address, the Borderlands Theater has a very specific identity, holding a unique place in our unique community.

Its productions include mostly contemporary and even new plays which address border issues—certainly involving geographical borders, but also issues which draw lines between individuals, cultures, genders and identities. We can always count on Borderlands to give us much to think about regarding immigration, the blending of and differences between cultures, and the life and concerns of our sizable Hispanic population.

Borderlands turned 25 this year, and concluding their anniversary season, they bring us the world premiere of White Tie Ball, by 25-year-old playwright Martín Zimmerman. The play was a finalist in a playwriting competition sponsored by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and it won the National New Play Network's Smith Prize.

Consistent with our expectations of Borderlands fare, the play is a serious story of two Mexican-American brothers: One is an upstanding, ambitious lawyer; the other is all too familiar with gangs, guns and prison. They have been estranged for years, but when Edward (Julian Martinez) decides to run for district attorney, he figures he can best deal with his family's history by simply being straightforward. Hoping to transform his brother and his past from a liability into an asset, he seeks out Beto (Mario Tineo), who is surprised and suspicious of Edward's invitation to join his campaign as a rehabilitation success story.

But it's never easy to leave the past behind, and when Beto is at the wrong place at the wrong time, he puts his brother in a precarious position, just as Edward and the governor's assistant, Margaret Spencer (Roxanne Harley), begin to develop plans for Edward to run for attorney general. Can these brothers find a way to reconcile their differences in love and respect, or have the borders been drawn too permanently for any hope of compromise within the brothers' differing ethical frameworks and priorities?

Zimmerman has set his tale in Tucson, although he had never been here before flying in to attend some rehearsals a few weeks ago. Impressively, his story is quite credibly grounded in our fair city, which makes its premiere here a rather special event.

Zimmerman has conceived a parable which certainly has resonance beyond the particulars of its setting and characters—and he undeniably shows an understanding of how to write a play. But when new plays actually get on their feet, weaknesses can make themselves obvious. Also, while director Barclay Goldsmith and his cast and crew do a fine job of translating the script to the stage, there are some things about the production which get in the way of making a wholehearted embrace of their effort.

Although I felt engaged by what I was witnessing, I had no real emotional attachment to these characters or their story. A good story is one thing, but a good story doesn't make good theater if we don't connect with its characters on an emotional level.

All of the actors give credible readings, but it's hard to warm up to them; the fault rests largely with a lack of development in the script. This is a one-act play, a little more than an hour in length; a fairly involved story told within a straightforward framework, which is what Zimmerman uses, takes time to develop. Here, we get the story, and we get the basics of who these people are, but we see them only in tightly drawn, limited circumstances. We don't really see them in settings which could define and deepen our sense of who they are, and, consequently, how we feel about them. We are engaged with them, but we are not offered enough to fully invest in them.

There are also some storytelling basics which are not quite administered effectively enough. The story begins with a sense of intensity—and the story pretty much remains intense throughout. There's very little humor, and no sense of an ebb and flow; it's like you are asked to take a deep breath and hold it for more than an hour. Maintaining this sense of intensity disturbs the natural flow of good storytelling, as evidenced by the fact that the audience had no idea that the piece was over until the playwright started applauding, and actors started taking their bows.

The production elements are solid, especially Andres Volovsek's set. There is, however, a very disturbing but easily corrected costuming choice: Edward's leather-soled shoes make all kinds of annoying racket as he walks about onstage—which he does a lot. How can that not have been noticed and taken care of?

White Tie Ball has some very good things going for it, although it has issues which need to be addressed. As is, it's a worthy effort—but it has the potential to be much more.

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