Theater Review: 'Nuevo California' boldly crosses borders

The San Diego Repertory Theater bills its new work as a “”binational play”” and an “”international mystery.”” Co-playwright Bernard Solano calls his piece “”21st-century noir with a very spiritual palette,”” and co-playwright Allan Havis likens it to a Robert Altman script. One thing is for sure: “”Nuevo California”” is a powerful, visionary gem of a drama.

In both form and content, “”Nuevo California”” is unique. Director Sam Woodhouse, Solano and their team interviewed hundreds of people from every walk of life in San Diego, Tijuana and Mexicali about their feelings on the border fence. Playwright and UCSD professor Havis joined, a multiethnic cast coalesced, and six years of development later, the result was “”Nuevo California.””

The play’s bold premise: What would happen if a huge earthquake wiped L.A. off the map, prompting the United States and Mexico to rebuild San Diego and Tijuana as one state? From there, the play transports us to 2080 A.D., at the moment where Pope Felipe, the first Mexican-American pope, is to give his blessing to tear down the border fence to create Nuevo California. Multiethnic supporters and opponents have gathered to witness the historic moment when disaster strikes. Will Nuevo California survive?

But just as this play defies easy categorization, it also avoids easy answers. Native-American myths, Mexican burial rites and Catholic beliefs share center stage. The multiethnic cast skillfully portrays a host of characters: There is the isolationist American woman, the proud-to-be-Mexican family man and U.S. business owner, the African-American hotshot news reporter, the disillusioned Jewish-American photographer, the ultra-nationalist and Catholic single mother from Tijuana, the Mexican-American pope who reeks on more than one level, and a Spanglish-speaking Asian girl named Sin Fin.

The play’s smart script spares no one, but also employs comedy to soften what Havis calls the play’s “”harsh mirror.”” Ultimately, the play turns painful truths into opportunities for catharsis and transformation.

The music, set and stage all contribute to a well-crafted play. The electronic bursts of Tijuana’s Nortec Collective induce chills in suspenseful scenes. The simple set of metal and sand become powerful symbols. Finally, the small theatre makes for an intimate setting, enhancing the emotional intensity of the performances.

John Campion, as Pope Felipe, excels in his Scrooge-like transformation from a jocose, materialistic pope (who initially prefers singing for MTV to speaking The Word) to a vulnerable man who, in helping border victim ghosts in their unfinished business, can finally achieve peace and confer it to others.

Jennifer Chu is remarkable as the rhyming, Spanglish-spouting Sin Fin, a syncretic figure whose name means “”without end”” in Spanish. Initially appearing to be a scrappy wannabe, Sin Fin emerges as the wise fool. She sees the truth, gets the last word in a powerful closing monologue, and dares to act to create a new beginning. In many ways, this soothsayer who hopes for a new future without end is the penultimate personification of the play’s spirit.

“”Nuevo California”” will strike a nerve, and the creators know it.

Sometimes, a play comes along that taps into the pulse of a region and calls for a new vision. In this post 9/11 era of paranoia, “”Nuevo California”” is especially timely in its plea for tolerance and change right in our own backyard. “”Nuevo California”” is not only relevant to our place and time, but promises to be universal and timeless.

Nuevo California

San Diego Repertory Theatre

Playing through March 2

(619) 544-100