Hot on the heels of one big ambitious Spanish-language theater production at REDCAT comes another. Timbotou, a world premiere production developed in a collaboration between the CalArts Center for New Performance and the University of Guadalajara Foundation, takes its constituent parts from materials much closer to home, though. The play written by Alejandro Ricano and directed by Martin Acosta, like its cast and creative team, lies on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, incorporating elements from communities on either side of this imaginary division of space into a vision that emphasizes the inter-relatedness of all its elements. Acosta and his design team have created an arch, visually compelling world that shoots for some ideological heights even if the bare knuckle storytelling in the two hour intermission-less performance is frequently far more pedestrian and earth bound.
Timboctou refers to an imagined place, the one farthest from wherever its characters are at any given time, that would provide escape from the particular stressors or crises at hand. And there’s a lot of the world the characters in this world would want to get away from including drug trafficking, government corruption, global warming and murder. The play is episodic and focuses on several sets of loosely interrelated characters, whether enacting or coping with the consequences of various illegal activities. Dany, played by Mario Montano Mora, and his twin Chucho, an equally humorous Axel Garcia, open the play trying to dump the corpses of several murder victims in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant in Tijuana. Their highly choreographed movements stand in contrast to the darkly comic banalities of their debates about the spelling of “sabes” in a warning note to accompany the bodies they are to dispose of.
The tone here sharply emulates the kind of banter Quentin Tarantino’s entire career is based on, and Ricano’s script is funny if far less sharp and effective than that. Soon the story spins into various directions looking at closely related plots that impinge on Dany and Chucho’s world including the visiting Spaniard they meet earlier in their travels and later the vacationing San Francisco college students who will accidentally kill him during a drunken beach brawl. It’s a structure that calls to mind another film, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic with its network of lives created and destroyed by the illegal drug industry. There are comical, incompetent government officials, stiff DEA agents, and mourning family members that populate Timboctou. Some of their vignettes work better than others but all share the same gabby, comical tone.
Timboctou, which is mostly in Spanish and uses projected supertitles on the walls of the set, is at its best when it unhinges itself from all this wordplay and runs with the surreal imagery that fills its physical space. The set is dominated by a mountain of rusty office chairs that at one point takes off in motion and becomes a shifting metaphor for a number of issues in the play. There’s use of performance generated video feed which is fed into a small monitor suspended from the ceiling throughout most of the performance. The stylized choreography of the opening scene remains consistent over the show's running time as well. There are also repeated references and visual projections of polar bears, creatures that Dany and Chucho imbue as inhabitants of the world farthest from them, but one still endangered by the global warming destroying their habitat. The twins see themselves in these endangered animals struggling in an increasingly hostile habitat. Later the bears actually arrive and dance to Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga”, an aria best known for its use in the 1711 opera Rinaldo.
Ricano and Acosta have an eye for the absurd and a visual language to go along with it. There’s power in Timboctou that suggests the show has something to say and places to go. But the evening still wants for more consistency and a looser, less narratively driven structure, which tends to dilute and reduce the power of its impact. Still the show offers a lot to think about and represents REDCAT’s commitment to theater events without any other comparable home in town. The show runs through Sunday the 11th downtown.