Going North to Find Your Center

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 23, 2019

Karen Zacarías’ theatrical adaptation of Into the Beautiful North, which gets its area debut in six performances over 10 days beginning Friday by UCSB Theater Department, is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize finalist Luís Alberto Urrea – which served as the selection for UCSB Reads back in 2017. Urrea was inspired by the classic 1960 Hollywood western The Magnificent Seven, which was itself inspired by the 1954 Japanese film The Seven Samurai. In fact, Urrea employs the Hollywood film as a catalyst for his story about a young woman who, after seeing the movie, leaves her home in a sleepy seaside town in Sinaloa, Mexico, to cross the border on a mission to smuggle the village’s men back across the border to repopulate and protect Tres Camarones from drug dealers and corrupt policemen.

Their 3,500-mile journey moves from Mexico to San Diego and, eventually, Kankakee, Illinois, where the 19-year-old Nayeli expands her quest to include finding her own father. While an assortment of odd characters offers a comical edge, and a UFO lends the tale an element of magical realism, the gist of the story is an age-old one that has a local connection. Joseph Campbell – many of whose papers and artifacts are held at OPUS Archives on Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Ladera Lane campus – took a deep dive in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero shared by world mythologies.

“I was drawn to the play because it’s basically the Hero’s Journey,” explained Shirley Jo Finney, who is serving as a guest director for Into the Beautiful North. “There’s the archetypal villains that need to be overcome, the good friends and guide that help, and a lot of situations and challenges that she needs to overcome. And she discovers, as we all do, that sometimes the walls we create are personal, ones that we’ve put up ourselves.”

Directing Beautiful North in a university setting – this production marks the first one ever by college students, Finney said – provides additional context for that exploration. “The characters are the same age as our students, which lends a poignant tone,” she said. Finney, who also helmed In the Red and Brown Water at UCSB five years ago, said she enjoyed the process of discovery with the young actors. “I’m teaching at the same time in the guise of directing.”

Research turned up a video of Urrea talking about how the novel originated, where he noted that the place in Mexico actually exists, and the story is drawn from his own experiences growing up on the border, Finney said. “Some of the characters are based on people who lived in the village, and he had a bit of his own journey that inspired and ignited the story.”

The plot also resonated with the students via their own or their families’ journeys, both literal and otherwise, the director said. “A majority of the cast has experienced some of these things that happen in the play. One actor’s father had himself gone back and forth over the border three times. She is the result of his sacrifice, the first person in his family to go to college. And my assistant director is an exchange student from Mexico. So there’s a lot of historical DNA that permeates in the cast.”

But while the catalyst came in issues of immigration and poverty that might seem particularly germane in recent years – the men left the novel’s village to seek a better life in the U.S. – politics aren’t the focus of the piece, which is fast-paced and often comical.

“We talked about what’s going on right now, people’s wants and needs and desires, all of those things, in the rehearsal room [when we started the process],” Finney said. “But the tone of the play is almost satirical. It’s addressing everyday topics and concerns that are in the headlines, but there are light moments. Her main objective is to save her town and find her father, and it focuses on her personal community and the one at large. And it’s more about the young woman’s journey into self-realization, self-discovery, and self-empowerment.”

Then there’s the magical realism.

“It’s like the Hero’s Journey meets Alice in Wonderland,” Finney said with a little laugh. “Like when she goes down that hole and meets all of these challenges… But it takes a lot of imagination from the audience, because the set has only seven chairs, two tables, and two staircases… The play is edutainment. We hope people have fun, but also go away wanting to continue the conversation.” 

(Into the Beautiful North opens at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater at 8 pm Friday, May 24. Additional performances are at 8 pm Wednesday-Saturday, May 29-June 1, and 2 pm Sunday, June 2. Tickets cost $12-$20. Call (805) 893-2064 or www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu.) 

More Magical Realism at PlayFest 

Given its title, Out There In Here, it’s no wonder that Anna Nicholas’ work, which gets a staged reading at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Saturday evening, May 25, also adds elements of the inexplicable in a tale that “takes place at the intersection of science and faith.” Nicholas has authored 15 other works ranging from Ocotillo (about a fashion designer with roots in Branch Davidian-era Waco), Villa Thrilla (a murder mystery in the theatrical world), and Lu/Lou (a love triangle between a man, a woman, and her horse), the latter of which was nominated for an LA Weekly Theatre Award. So we’ll do what PlayFest itself did and use her own words to, ahem, set the stage for Out There: “It’s autumn, the Santa Anas are blowing and LA’s on fire again. Jasper Molloy is an aging Apollo astronaut diagnosed with Alzheimer’s who’s been stashing Oxycontin in the bookshelves until the day he has enough to off himself. Daughter Lucie was an archeologist until her son was killed by a philandering neighbor’s pool man and she found the Lord, while son Hubble is a SETI researcher and atheist who spends his days searching for life in the multiverse. Then in walks Johnny, a contractor Lucie meets online, who shakes things up with his open heart and mind.”

PlayFest Santa Barbara’s seventh annual Festival of New Plays also features Nicholas conducting a free playwriting workshop that same day from 10 am to 12 noon, where writers of all ages can participate in a series of individual and group writing experiments to explore and deepen their playwriting skills and begin to create a short written theatrical work. Admission to the workshop (which requires advance registration) and 6 pm performance are free. Visit http://playfestsantabarbara.org.

High School Dramatists form ‘Union’

Ensemble Theatre Company’s second annual Young Playwrights’ Festival – which also takes place on Saturday evening, May 25 – features professional actors in staged readings of six 10-minute plays written by local Santa Barbara high school students. The authors were given the theme of “a more perfect union” as inspiration, which of course comes from the preamble to the United States Constitution. The stories focus on marriage, addiction, loss, time-travel, relationships, balance, and unity, according to ETC’s new Education Director Brian McDonald, who oversaw the five month-long program. Admission is free.

Animal Instincts

The Santa Barbara Zoo struck success right away with IMPROVology (formerly Zoo’s Line Is It Anyway?), its science-meets-comedy show that mashes up wildlife talks from animal experts with improvisational theater games from members of L.A.’s Impro Theatre who turn the facts into funny scenes. Created and hosted by the zoo’s then marketing director Dean Noble, a former improv actor, the periodic performances brought a lot of laughter after dark to a small hall at the zoo’s beachside location, with the chats and comedy covering such beasts as gorillas and lizards, parrots, insects, and big cats.

Now the animals and actors are taking their act on the road, heading downtown to the Lobero Theatre for its first off-site endeavor. The step up to the much larger facility represents a “big experiment,” zoo CEO Rich Block said about the migration – or perhaps an attempt at getting animals to mate.

“The setting at the zoo wasn’t designed for that kind of performance,” he explained. “A legitimate theater is much more suited for an improv show. And since the programs are all in the evening, people weren’t seeing much of the zoo anyway. So we thought we’d bring it to where the people are and see if we can develop a bigger audience.”

Block said that’s become particularly important as even more species are threatened by extinction, noting the UN study about challenges to biodiversity that came out earlier this month.

“IMPROVology shows that science can be not only interesting but very fun. It helps to bring conservation to a level where people can relate. It’s a great time for us to get the message out about the good work we do, and the others do that we bring in, and get people engaged, with the hope that it might make a difference.”

First up for the scientists in the new location are Joseph Brandt, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife supervisory biologist who oversees local efforts to bring the California condor back from the brink, and Dr. Tara Stoinski, who has studied gorillas for more than two decades and heads up the renowned Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. At intervals during the experts’ talk, the interviews pause so that the actors can create comedy skits on-the-spot based on the scientific information and stories.

Impro Theatre co-founder and producing artistic director Dan O’Connor will serve as the new host, joined this time by company members Kelly Holden Bashar, Brian Michael Jones, Stephen Kearin, Brian Lohmann, and Jo McGinley, with musical accompaniment from pianist Konrad Kono and bassist Dr. Michael Schindlinger.

“It’s a world of wild unpredictability,” Lohmann said about performing for IMPROVology. “Humans are still trying to understand why animals do what they do, which fits perfectly with improvisers because we’re willing to act with spontaneity and behave without a social filter the way most animals do.”

For Lohmann, IMPROVology also educates the actors as much as the audience. “We get to expand our brains and learn a ton about the world of animal science and zoology, things we’d never get to participate in otherwise,” he said. “And we have to listen to it closely enough so that we can recreate it in a funny way two minutes later, so it gets ingrained in us quickly. It’s like being given a flash quiz, and also getting to feel closer to other species on the planet that we personify or portray their behavior.”

(IMPROVology debuts at the Lobero Theatre at 8 pm Wednesday, May 29. Tickets cost $25-$70. Visit www.lobero.org or call (805) 963-0761.)

Cinematic Strumming

Carmine Street Guitars, a charming 80-minute jewel about a guitar shop still active in New York’s Greenwich Village, was among the music-themed documentaries that comprised SBIFF 2019’s Cinesonic Sidebar, a slate that also included Echoes in the Canyon, which took a loving look at the Laurel Canyon scene that gave birth to jangly folk-rock in the early 1970s. Both films will be enjoying local runs in the general area beginning this weekend. Guitars – which has several scenes in which a hipster guitarist including Lenny Kaye, Nels Cline, and Charlie Sexton walks into the store and just starts playing one of the custom guitars manufactured from wood salvaged from NYC buildings – is the first to return to town as it will play at SBIFF’s Riviera Theatre May 24-27. You’ll have to venture to LA’s The Landmark, however, to see Canyon in the cinema.

Meanwhile, SBIFF’s new Education Center – officially named The Barbakow Family Center for Film Studies to honor Jeffrey and Margo Baker Barbakow, the Montecito couple with close ties to SBIFF – has its grand opening at 5 pm next Thursday, May 30. The 3,600 sq. ft. space at 1330 State Street is designed as a flexible space that includes several creative classrooms, a screening room, community meeting space, movie library, and editing suite for filmmakers. Visit www.sbiff.org for all things related to the film festival. 

Further Focus on Film

While surf movies have long been a staple as a sidebar at SBIFF, the cult classic screening out at UCSB’s Pollock Theater dates back even further than the festival’s 35 years. David Elfick’s Crystal Voyager, which serves as both a portrait of the surfing innovator George Greenough, who wrote and narrates the film, and a love letter to surf in the Santa Barbara Channel from Rincon to Hollister Ranch, will be shown in a newly restored digital version of the 1973 doc at 7 pm Thursday, May 30. Elfick, now a robust 74, will be on hand for a post-screening discussion with author Garth Murphy and UCSB film prof Alexander Champlin. Free admission.


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