Magnificent seven

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By Doug Deuchler

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The play moves quickly, cinematically, with lots of locations and many unforgettable characters. Into the Beautiful North is filled with humor and warmth. With its all-Latino cast of eight, this lively, quirky show is a whole lot of fun.

The 16th Street Theater production in Berwyn has already gone into extension and seats are sold out for a number of performances. Early word-of-mouth has quickly identified this as a sure-fire hit. 

The play has been adapted by Karen Zacarias (author of last season's The Book Club Play) from a popular 2009 novel by Luis Alberto Urrea, which has been a book club favorite in recent years. The busy, fascinating plot is set in the dangerous world of the U.S.-Mexico border region

Ann Filmer and Miguel Nunez, the co-directors, keep their fast-paced production moving like a runaway train. The character-centered show never loses its steam — or its sense of humor. 

The protagonist, a feisty, strong-willed young woman in her late teens named Nayeli, is smoothly played by Ilse Zacharias. She has a brown belt in karate. But there are almost no men left in her sleepy village because they've all gone north. Even Nayeli's father abandoned her at a very young age to cross over into the states to find work. Now the poor, defenseless town called Tres Camarones [Three Shrimps] is besieged by drug-dealing thugs. These bandits terrorize the villagers.

Nayeli's hero is her middle-aged Aunt Irma (Laura Crotte), a feminist and former bowling champion. She has just been elected to serve as the first female mayor of the village. Crotte is a master at being hilarious and sometimes frightening at the same moment.

Nayeli and a few friends attend a local screening of The Magnificent Seven, based on the Japanese film The Seven Samurai. In the Hollywood version, the elders of a Mexican farming village decide to fight back and travel to the U. S. to recruit brave gunfighters. Nayeli is inspired to go on just such a mission to the States to bring back seven men, including her father, to defend Tres Camarones against the drug-dealing banditos. So she hatches an elaborate scheme.

Nayeli persuades several loyal friends to accompany her on this dangerous mission, sneak into the U. S., and help her find seven magnificent men to defend their town. 

Tacho, the proud, defiant gay proprietor of the local taco diner, is played by Esteban Andres Cruz. He is both touching and amusing. In lesser hands this character might become a stereotyped sassy sissy. But Cruz is solid and delightful.

Vampi, whose real name is Veronica, is short for Vampira. She is solidly played by Allyce Torres. The black-clad "goth" girl has black hair, black lips and a passion for heavy metal music. She is Nayeli's best friend.

This trio take a long, dangerous bus ride to Tijuana. Here they meet scrappy Atomico, "King of the Dump," who becomes Nayeli's fierce protector with a broom stick. Brandon Rivera is terrific in this role, a delightful spin on a comic book superhero. The talented ensemble creates scores of characters, many making only fleeting appearances. Juan Munoz is especially good in a variety of roles, as is Miguel Nunez.

Matt, a young Anglo missionary, is given an extra edge of comic flair by Andres Enriquez.

There are constant sight gags and sudden scene shifts that are truly amazing. Whenever Nayeli thinks of her absentee cowboy father who is now living up in Kankakee, Illinois, a crummy beige shower curtain is pulled out and the man is portrayed in silhouette with light shining behind him. It's almost like we're seeing an old sepia film clip.

Joanna Iwanicks' scene design is extremely adaptable to a variety of locations and situations. A huge brown corrugated structure contains a number of windows and doors. It can become a tunnel, a passenger bus, a projection booth, or whatever else may be needed. 

The light design by Cat Wilson is especially well done, providing additional emphasis and dramatic focus when needed.

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