By Jackson Riley
In this world premiere, the lives of a single mother, Jesse, and her teenage son are turned upside down one night when a wounded, undocumented immigrant breaks into their trailer home in rural South Texas. As Jesse covertly takes in the immigrant, she has to go to increasingly complicated lengths to hide her secret from the various people in her life, including a border protection agent with a crush and her web-addicted teenage son. The play's timely story is a welcome addition to the canon of new Chicago plays, though the flawed script could certainly have used more work prior to opening professionally.
The production is anchored by the strong performances of it's leads - Sandra Marquez and Aysette Munoz both give fantastic turns as the undocumented immigrant and the woman who is hiding her. Marquez has quickly become one of the most consistently great performers in this city, and here she's at her best. The heightened reality of the play offers a perfect showcase for her comedic chops. Her funny moments land so well because they are never forced, and always come from a place of truth. Munoz, on the other hand, is showcased most wonderfully in the dramatic moments. Once I got past her inconsistent (and often forgotten) limp, I greatly enjoyed her work. The fear and desperation in her eyes was palpable.
The leading ladies are supported wonderfully by Tommy Rivera-Vega, as Marquez's teenage son, and Jim Farruggio as the border patrol officer. Rivera-Vega, like Marquez, is a dependable talent whose performance is both heartbreaking and hilarious. Farruggio counters the rest of the cast perfectly, playing his part so honest-to-goodness that you often question if he's even acting. The infinitely-likable Bryce Gangel never breaks past the valley girl stereotype.
Despite mostly strong performances, however, the play is held back by a lack of direction and an under-developed script. Both of these issues are on full display in the inexplicably terrible dream sequences, in which Munoz's character essentially delivers her internal monologue to her dead boyfriend, played by Steve Casillas. These moments are so offensively amateur, it is questionable what director Gutierrez and playwright Castillo were thinking. The heavy-handed tech was matched perfectly by the ridiculous stage makeup and performance by Castillo. Think "twelve-year-old boy making a homemade zombie movie" bad. The fault most likely lies on direction and not on the young actor - but that makes no difference when the audience is hit over the head with lines delivered with such thick schlock. Most blatantly offensive about this nauseating subplot was the incredibly lazy choice to have Munoz's character, who cannot speak a word of English in the 'real' world of the play, suddenly monologue in perfect English during these sequences. It would be one thing if these moments added anything to the plot - but even so, the production would benefit from projecting subtitles or doing pretty much anything else. Another odd choice in the writing was one scene taking place completely out of order in the timeline of events, when the rest of the play takes place chronologically.
This play truly would benefit from a workshop with a director that has a sharper eye. Gutierrez shows no attention for detail. The actors rarely knew where to stand or what to do when when they weren't the ones speaking. Staging was often awkward (with characters facing odd directions, or practically standing on top of each other) and some moments were clearly underdeveloped. Also, we know it would be cruel to force a young actress (Munoz) to physically stay in the 'closet' for the majority of the play, but the trap door was so obvious it distracted from her excellent performance and the tensions of the play.
Overall, the issues did not prevent this production from being quite good. However, under a more inventive and keen director and with a more developed script, the production would have met the majority of the actors in delivering something great.
Between Me, You and the Lampshade runs through May 10th at the Victory Gardens Theatre. For more information, please visit teatrovista.org.
Jackson Riley is a writer based in Chicago.