New Times / Art
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 29, Issue 2
PCPA premieres new play, 'The San Patricios,' about a little known part of U.S. history
BY KYLE McCARTY
San Patricios opens with a solemn chorus, calling to mind honor, war, and noble ideals. The play’s cast stands at attention, singing, with the set looming in the background and a series of ropes suggesting a hangman’s noose. But the solemn scene is quickly shattered, as a carnival barker caricature of 11th president, James K. Polk, and the famous Mexican general, Santa Anna, take the stage.
“History is written by winners!,” Polk shouts at the audience. This cynical statement challenges the audience to consider whose history they’ve been taught, and prepares them for the variety of experiences they will see on display in José Cruz González’s play, The San Patricios.
The play takes its name, and its focus, from a regiment of primarily Irish immigrants, who abandoned the U.S. Army and went to fight for Mexico in the Mexican-American War. They did this for a variety of reasons, some because Mexico promised land and better wages, some because they felt mistreated by the nativists in the U.S. army, and still others who became disillusioned with fighting fellow Catholics.
The story loosely follows two families: one, a well to do Mexican family, and the other, an Irish immigrant couple who come seeking a better life in America. As the play progresses, each family becomes embroiled in the war, and they eventually choose to fight alongside the San Patricios.
The play upends the traditional American immigrant story, as the Irish immigrant characters find their lives hardly better in the U.S. than they were back in Ireland. This experience drives many of them to join the San Patricios, hoping to create in Mexico the life they expected in the U.S. The shifting of allegiance from the U.S. to Mexico shows how much some are willing to sacrifice and risk to build a better life. John Riley, the leader of the Patricios exemplifies this, as he defiantly declares his love for Mexico while court martialed, based on the kinship he feels the country shares with his native Ireland.
The San Patricios are viewed in radically different lights by each side. To the U.S., they are deserters and traitors, who abandoned their country to fight alongside the enemy. To Mexico, they are heroes, who helped them fight against an unjust invasion. By choosing to focus his play on characters from a variety of places and experiences, González gives the audience a nuanced look at the conflict, and is able to see the similarities between those on each side.
The play is the third by González to premiere at PCPA, and you can sense his maturity as a writer from his choice of such a controversial and historically important topic. Additionally, PCPA’s company does an able job bringing the play to life, handling dramatic scenes, foreign accents, musical performances, and comic levity with aplomb.
Particularly memorable is Anna Lamadrid, who plays Ofelia, a young Mexican woman who defies the wishes of her mother and brother, and takes up arms to defend Mexico. Lamadrid captures the fierce independence of a woman who goes against the pervasive social pressures of her time period.
Also memorable is Leo Cortez, playing Santa Anna, who portrays the Mexican general with gusto, and is able to provide moments of comic relief in a play that could be in danger of overdoing the dour. At one point, Santa Anna shouts “Let them learn Spanish, this is Mexico, cabrones!”—a comic poke at nativist demands.
The play features music by Daniel Valdez. The soundtrack of the play draws on traditional Irish and Mexican songs, and features a number of excellent performances by PCPA’s actors. The play is hardly a musical though. Rather, the use of music throughout adds color and mood, and draws the audience back to a time before recorded music was pervasive, and hearing a song meant someone had to perform it.
And just as recorded music has brought back songs from the past to audiences who might never hear them, this play gives voice to those whose story was little known until now.
Kyle McCarty’s last name is Irish. Get in touch with him via Arts Editor Jessica Peña at firstname.lastname@example.org.