It makes no sense to adapt a beloved novel for the theater. In fact, it's absurd—basically the same as saying, "I'm going to take this thing you enjoyed, throw out the parts I can't use, rearrange the rest, maybe add a bunch of other stuff I made up myself, pour it all into a completely different format, and invite you to go see the results out of respect for what it was before I started slapping it around."
And here's what makes even less sense: We do go see it. And more often than not, we have a fine time.
Latest case in point: Karen Zacarías's stage version of Into the Beautiful North, a novel by Chicago writer Luis Alberto Urrea, getting its world premiere now at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. My wife and I both read the book when it came out in 2009 and agreed it was sly, sharp, and pleasing. Like fools, we got excited when we heard about the 16th Street production, and perhaps just as foolishly, we weren't disappointed. As codirected by Ann Filmer and Miguel Nuñez, Zacarías's script isn't as sly or sharp as the original, but it's definitely pleasing. And it's faithful in its fashion.
Both the book and the play center on Nayeli, a precocious Mexican teenager who lives in a tiny Pacific coast village called Tres Camarones, where, as Urrea notes, the people are so traditional they voted to disconnect their electricity.
The tactic failed, however. Partly because "no woman in town would give up her refrigerator, her electric fan, or her electric iron," but far more devastatingly because Tres Camarones got caught up in Mexico's economic crisis. With no work at home, the men went looking for it in el norte, the United States.
The vacuum they've left provides an opening for two dirty cops with lucrative sidelines doing "advisory" work for a drug cartel. Inspired by a local showing of The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to take her own trek north, where she hopes to find seven heroes who will help her kick cartel butt. Not incidentally, she also hopes to find her father, who left long ago for Kankakee, Illinois.
Nayeli hits the road with her best friends: Tres Camarones's lone gay man, Tacho, and a "fatalist" goth girl known as Vampi, for "vampire." The rest is a black-comic picaresque, as the intrepid trio lead us through the pleasures and horrors of Tijuana, the stalemated war between border cops and border jumpers, an epic garbage dump (where they meet their first hero, a would-be ninja named Atomiko), and parts of a North America that feels now like The Grapes of Wrath, now like A River Runs Through It, and often like the commercial breaks during an NFL game.
The genius of Urrea's narrative lies in its embrace of the whole. For all its seductions, the United States is neither Satan's pit nor the promised land—or rather, it's both and neither. The people who make for places like Kankakee may be deluded or desperate. They may want to disappear or they may simply get lost. Some of them, many of them, may even wish they could head home.
Filmer, Nuñez, and Zacarías seem to understand this. The River Runs Through It moment, when Nayeli encounters a fisherman in the cold Colorado mountains, is as quietly tender as the Grapes of Wrath moments—an attack on migrant workers, an instance of prejudice from an unexpected source—are ugly. The codirectors nevertheless push too hard for an ingratiating cartoonishness at times, leaning more than necessary on the notion of Nayeli and company as ragtag Mexican Power Rangers. They also allow too much of the ragtag to leech into their production values: dropped lines and botched moves are endearing only up to a point.
Still, things work out pretty well overall. I suppose we tolerate the absurdity of stage adaptations because we want—apparently at all costs—to reach across the words and get physically close to the folks we've found in novels. We want the chance to view them in motion, from the side and back as well as the front. This adaptation achieves that. Slips notwithstanding, the cast accomplish the essential business of bringing Into the Beautiful North beautifully into the room. Esteban Andres Cruz's Tacho, Brandon Rivera's Atomiko, and Laura Crotte's Irma, Nayeli's force-of-nature aunt, are particularly engaging, but everybody on Joanna Iwanicka's clever set contributes energetically to a solid sense of ensemble. v