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Teatro Vista’s “i put the fear of mexico in ’em” misses the mark

Jonah (Bryn Packard) is confronted by several sketchy characters (Miguel QuijadCruz Gonzalez Cadel) while visiting TijuanTeatro Vista’s 'i put fear

Jonah (Bryn Packard) is confronted by several sketchy characters (Miguel Quijada and Cruz Gonzalez Cadel) while visiting Tijuana in Teatro Vista’s "i put the fear of mexico in ‘em."

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‘i put the fear of
mexico in ’em’


◆ Through Dec. 9

◆ Chicago Dramatists,
1105 W. Chicago

◆ Tickets, $25

◆ (773) 599-9280;

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Updated: December 11, 2012 6:07AM

Teatro Vista, Chicago’s largest and most solidly established Latino theater company, almost always gets things right.

But with its world premiere of “i put the fear of mexico in ’em” it has gotten just about everything wrong. Not only is Matthew Paul Olmos’ dreadful little play what might best be dubbed “equal opportunity insult,” but it is un-actable, as demonstrated by a cast that features several ordinarily excellent actors.

Olmos’ subject — the many misconceptions and stereotypes that tend to poison relations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border — is certainly worth exploring. But he has approached it in the most primitive and belief-stretching ways, confirming rather than dispelling all the familiar myths. And sitting through this play, directed by Teatro Vista’s new artistic director, Ricardo Gutierrez, was sheer agony — not because of its painful message, but because of its total inadequacy.

That inadequacy was apparent from the play’s very first moments as Jonah (Bryn Packard), and his adventurous wife, Adray (Cheryl Graeff), a California couple vacationing in Tijuana, decide to head off the beaten path for a few hours to see some artwork she has read about. Instead, they end up being held hostage by a Mexican couple — Efren (Miguel Nunez) and his machine-gun-toting wife, Juana (Charin Alvarez).

As it happens, Jonah and Adray have a sexually budding teenage daughter back home, while Efren and Juana seem to have a teenage son who also lives in California (nothing about why he is there is sufficiently explained, but it hardly matters). Fear lurks.

Of course the questions Olmos probably wants us to ask are: Just who is holding who hostage on each side of the border? Are the power games essentially the same on both sides of the border? And how does it feel to get a bit of your own medicine?

At moments, Graeff also plays her own naive daughter, though at other times she also is played by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, who doubles in the role of a very young Mexican pole-dancer and prostitute who tries to interest Jonah. Marvin Quijada plays Efren and Juana’s son, as well as a Mexican policeman.

Regina Garcia’s set design is just gritty and trashed enough to suggest a bad corner of a tough town. It’s the only distraction from a play that should have been left in the playwright’s drawer.

Note: The remainder of Teatro Vista’s season is full of promise, with Juan Francisco Villa’s winning “Empanada for a Dream” to be performed from Feb. 14 through March 16 at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “The Happiest Song Plays Last” in a co-production with the Goodman Theatre.

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