Immigration and documentation are not common themes in theater. For a city the size of Santa Barbara to open two such pieces in a single weekend is a strange coincidence, to say the least. The Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College is currently playing Lisa Dillman’s Ground (2010), a beautifully crafted drama that spreads a tangle of race, property, citizenship, and divided loyalties in a small New Mexican border town. Opera Santa Barbara’s one-weekend run of The Consul (1950), by Italian-American writer/composer Gian Carlo Menotti, sings of a drab and dangerous totalitarian bureaucracy and the desperate attempt by the wife of a dissident man to emigrate. None of this, of course, is primarily intended as art for entertainment but theater to unsettle and provoke conscience. While the two productions differ in many respects, both stories pit personal dignity against paperwork and are rife with secrecy, law enforcement, manhunts, and death to the “guilty” who run at cross-purpose with the state and the innocent who fall through the cracks. That these two American works, written 60 years apart, should be so similar is hardly surprising; identity, authority, and the fence will forever preoccupy the Land of Migrations.
The Consul is not a “fun” opera. It occupies a gray world that runs from bad to tragic. The real enemy in Menotti’s nameless state is not a dictator or ideology but mindless bureaucracy itself, parodied by an impressive set design showing the consulate interior stacked wall-to-wall and floor to ceiling in file drawers. “Your name is a number, your story’s a case,” sings the rule-bound Secretary (Nina Yoshida Nelsen), who spends her days managing a queue of would-be emigrants, one “Next” at a time, only to pronounce each file incomplete. Admittedly, at face value, none of this sounds promising. In order to understand how this show merited Menotti a Pulitzer Prize, and why this Santa Barbara production should have been a sellout, you need to take into account the elements of fantasy, personified by magician Nika Magadoff (Robert Watson), which pop with Technicolor against a backdrop of despair. You need to listen to the heart-wrenching and human-affirming arias like “Shall We Ever See?” sung magnificently by Mother (Buffy Baggott) or “To This We’ve Come” sung by Magda Sorel (Alexandra LoBianco). And you have to feel Menotti’s musical genius for symphonic writing, played by a crack orchestra under the direction of Brent Wilson. The overall experience was mesmerizing and thoroughly satisfying.
In Ground, the issue is immigration, not emigration, and while documentation is still the all-important gateway, there is no exaggerated parody of bureaucracy. Here the problems wear the relativities and complexities of real life. The plot depicts a tragic ripping of seams among a few families in a rural town that has for generations lived a harmonious and humane, if not quite equal, life among citizen and noncitizen immigrants. Director R. Michael Gros has assembled a cast of six capable of truly memorable characterizations. Peter T. Rojas turns in a pivotal performance as the venerable farmhand Chuy Gallegos. Jennifer Marco appears as Zelda Preston, a young woman who fled the small town as a teenager, only to now return with the occasion of her father’s death. Adrian Marquez gives a phenomenal stage debut as Carl Zelaya, a Mexican American who takes a job with border patrol but, in turn, suffers estrangement from Mexican relatives and a kind of ever-present traitor’s guilt. Robert Demetriou is wonderful as the overzealous leader of the voluntary border patrol Citizen Alliance (think Minuteman Project). Marisol Miller-Wave and Maria V. Oliveira give excellent supporting performances as the Ochoa sisters.