Theater note: The line in the sand


The program notes for Border Crossing, Off-Leash Area’s new work, state that “it is not our intention to create a political statement with Border Crossing, at our core not being a politically motivated company, although, as political people will tell you, everything’s political.”

Border Crossing, a play presented by the Off-Leash Area through May 4 at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. N.E., Minneapolis. For information and tickets ($24), see

I don’t think they achieved a non-political piece of theater. It is impossible to deal with such provocative subject matter and not have a political point of view. What they have achieved, however, is to create an ambitious, visually stunning epic that is emotionally compelling; and a complex, well-researched exploration of the topic of immigration.

For the venue, Off-Leash chose the Ritz Theater—an excellent choice. The stage has a vast openness that works well with the large gestures of the piece. The vibrant colors of the set are visible even before the play begins. The backdrop is a bright blue sky, sprinkled with clouds. There are mountains that bridge the backdrop and floor of the set, which is painted with the rich orange of the desert and is dressed with dead shrubs and a broken bicycle. Along the forefront of the stage are tattered clothes hanging ominously over the orchestra pit. Rising above all of the set is a huge yellow, textured sun. The sun is one of the most ingenious elements of the piece. The sun is made with material that partially masks the sun’s own light. The sun creates some amazing images; it’s an example of the excellent collaboration between set designer Paul Herwig and lighting designer Mike Grogan.

The play begins with two men grappling with a young girl, played by Citlalitl De Leon. There is shouting in Spanish, and the two men leave the girl in the desert and make their escape. So begins the girl’s journey. We discover her family paid a coyote to take her across the border, but she was subsequently abandoned. Essentially, Border Crossing is the girl’s story. As the main character, she is the person who we root for, who we care about. We journey with her as she meets the desert spirits who guide her along her way.

Citlatlitl De Leon is a bright young talent. Speaking with a clear voice that suggests intelligence beyond her years, she portrays the girl with practicality and vulnerability. We see the girl’s fear, but we also see her strength. She has a backpack full of water and food, and she has to figure out how to get to the United States—even if she doesn’t know which way north is.

My first reaction was to think that some of these characters were over the top—except, sadly, the reality is that there are actual people whose views are very similar to these characters’.

The Desert’s Spirit, which guides the girl, is played by a number of performers led by Paul Herwig. The Desert’s Spirit can change its form to represent various animals. The performers use highly stylized movement and mask work, creating, as an ensemble, a changeable character with breath and life. With their voices they create an eerie, disharmonic chant that fills the theatre with a haunting sound.

Meanwhile, another chorus of performers portrays a group of migrants whose journey north parallels that of the girl. These performers have the most dance-like sections of the show, using gesture, object work, and modern dance to depict the trajectory from hope to despair and death. In the migrants’ movements, we see Jennifer Ilse’s sensitive and beautiful choreography. The movements these dancers create are breathtaking.

Finally, interspersed among the stories of the girl, the Desert’s Spirit, and the migrants, four individual characters come on stage and peform short monologues from different perspectives, portraying a broad range of viewpoints on the topic of immigration. A border patrolman, a ranger, an Arizona snowbird, and a social justice activist speak their minds in sometimes unsettling ways. My first reaction was to think that some of these characters were over the top—except, sadly, the reality is that there are actual people whose views are very similar to these characters’.

At an hour and a half, the show does seem long at times, partly because of its interweaving of emotion and imagery with intellectual discourse and politics. Ultimately, however, Border Crossing is a complex work of storytelling, full of discourse and imagery. The production asks more questions than it answers, but it addresses a very important political issue with empathy and grace.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.