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Mexico's got theater in unusual spaces

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Whitney Eulich/TCSM

(Read caption) Two members of the Achilles Heel theater troop perform in the street car Trolébus Doble Vida in Mexico City's first Festival of Theater in Unusual Spaces.

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Some 25 people were trapped in a small street car in Mexico City last week; backs pushed up against the walls, watching uncomfortably as a man grabbed a stranger by the hair and yanked her to the ground.

The police weren’t called, and the incident couldn’t be found in any crime blotters the day after. But this wasn’t an example of Mexico’s troubled security situation. In fact, the aggression taking place had been rehearsed many times before, as a part of Mexico City’s first annual Festival of Theater in Unusual Spaces.

Two 1970s-era Japanese street cars situated near parks in trendy Mexico City neighborhoods serve as the staging ground for the festival, now entering its third and final week.

Mexico City has a long, rich history in the arts – from well-know painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to the world-renowned Mexican Folkloric Ballet and more experimental performance artists like Jesusa Rodríguez. According to the Ministry of Culture there are five main theater companies in Mexico City, but that doesn’t include the scores of smaller troops and venues in the federal district and surrounding Mexico State.

Eloy Hernández oversees the street car theater Trolébus Doble Vida and is a festival producer. The two street cars, along with a third that hasn’t been incorporated in this first performance series, were transformed into weekly theater spaces between 2009 and 2012. But when Mr. Hernández began receiving more scripts and requests to use the space than he could accommodate, he thought it was time to organize a festival that showcases the skills of many emerging Mexico City artists thirsting for an outlet.

“Mexico City has a lot of theaters,” says Mariano Ruiz, an actor and director hanging out by the Trolebús Doble Vida before last week’s show. But no matter the city, “there are always lots of actors and too little work.” It can be very hard to enter large, official theaters in Mexico, Mr. Ruiz says. “You’re competing with the big names.”

Stolen lights and an 'unforgiving' space

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The Achilles Heel theater troop performed the play "Dulces Compañias" last week, by Mexican playwright Oscar Liera. It wasn’t written for a performance in a trolly car, but it was created for a small theater, so the roughly 8-meter long and 1-meter wide space delivered the intended impact.

“[Audience members] feel trapped, claustrophobic,” says actor Francisco Bentacourt, who plays the lead role of a psychotic park dweller who preys on naive strangers who invite him back to their homes. “This is very intimate.”

There isn’t room for elaborate scene changes or set design, but the actors and small crew did an impressive job with what they had.

“The space is so small, it’s unforgiving,” says Hernández. You have to be more attentive than you would in a main stage theater, he says. “There have to be good actors, because they are right in your face, and the director has to come up with solutions” to communicate with the audience when there is no curtain to drop at the end of a scene or sophisticated lighting options to evoke a certain emotion or energy. (In fact, any light at all is a challenge: The street car has had its electric wiring stolen twice, and now connects lamps via extension cords to a power outlet at a nearby hotel.)

But creative they were. When the end of the first act started heating up, a man who had until that point appeared to be just another audience member began tapping his feet – louder and louder, faster and faster – to correspond with the increasingly heated dialogue taking place up and down the trolly car aisle. A tall lamp that looked like it belonged in a college dorm room was snapped off after Mr. Bentacourt’s character killed the woman who had invited him in from the park.

Suddenly a small projector stored under another audience member’s seat was pulled into the aisle. A woman sitting by a computer on one of the wheel wells began a video montage of the main character walking through a park, set to music. It was projected on the partition behind the driver’s seat, and kept the audience’s attention as a few small tweaks were made to the modest set before Act II.

Yellow “caution” tape lined the floor of the street car to indicate where audience members risked exiting their spots as voyeurs and encroaching on the actors’ domain.

Next spaces: bodegas, apartments

If theater demands a certain suspension of reality, theater in a street car flushes an extra bit of reality into the drama. “You want me to go out there in the rain?” Mr. Bentacourt’s character yells at one point, just after a real-time rain storm started pounding outside.

Rodrigo Minor attended the show and says he liked the experience. “It’s a new side of theater for me,” says Mr. Minor, a systems engineer who works nearby and saw festival advertisements in the neighborhood. This was his first time watching a play in a street car, and says it’s something he would gladly try again.

The festival is free to attend (they don’t have the necessary permits to charge for tickets, but do accept tips) and the shows vary greatly. Though this play was quite dark and menacing, others generate roars of laughter.

Next year, Hernández hopes to expand the festival to include even more unusual spaces in Mexico City: bodegas and private apartments, for starters.

“In the past, actors and directors were always waiting for a call,” Hernández says. “But now people make their own spaces. There’s less knocking on doors, and more creating.”

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