The Tommy Guns of Mexico City

by Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo

in Global Connections

Post image for The Tommy Guns of Mexico City

I’ve come to Mexico City through TCG’s Global Connections: On the Road grant to continue to work with three local clown-theater artists on a new project with the theme of war (Guerra: A Clown Play is the working title of our play). But upon arrival I find myself immersed in the rich cultural life of this vast and thrilling city.

Shortly after touching down I am watching a lovely production of ‘La Dama de las Camelias’ (based on the novel by Dumas), directed by our lead clown Artús Chávez for the National Theater. The tragic and romantic story of obsessive love in 19th centuryFrance is difficult at times to follow with my imperfect Spanish, but beautifully performed and designed.

Photo: Seth Bockley

As I soon learn, the theater, located in an arts complex on the edge of the great park Chapultepec (equal to New York’s Central Park in every respect), is easily accessible through the city’s new public bike program. This incredibly easy (albeit occasionally hair-raising) mode of transportation, in which bikes are quickly ‘signed out’ and returned by swiping a card, makes traversing the central neighborhoods a snap. For a Chicagoan, biking in December in a t-shirt is also a kind of dream come true.

Photo: Seth Bockley.

On day Two I attend a cabaret-style show, in a small theater in the neighborhood of Coyoacan. This satire, by a group called Género Mayor, is based on the Untouchables mythology of Chicago, and the style and music of Prohibition-era urban America. Featuring thinly veiled allusions to the Untouchables TV show, historical figures such as Eliot Ness (he insists it’s short for ‘Néstor’) and Al Capone, the broad but funny parody ‘Los Intachables’ has a serious message for its Mexican audience. In the show, Prohibition has come to Mexico in the form of a public health crusade against tortillas (as well as other corn-based ‘antojitos’, or snacks). The tortilla prohibition causes the rise of organized crime.

Allusions to (real-world) crimes of the narco-traffickers, police and military in this format prove very effective. The piece ends with a tap song and dance number in which Elías Nés(tor) sings about the need for ‘legalization’ (of tortillas, of course) to end the violence that plagues his country. The allegory is carried off with panache and even a fair amount of nuance, showing the Untouchables’ good intentions but bad results.

Photo: Género Mayor. Pictured: The band of Los Intachables

Meanwhile, Madeleine, Fernando, Artús and I continue our own exploration of comedy by way of violence. We’ve spent our time so far reconstructing and improving the piece that we developed in Chicago in September, deepening the characters at the core of the piece—the preening General, the myopic Sergeant, and the victimized Soldier. The idea of a war epic told with clowns is intended not as a political allegory (as in ‘Los Intachables’) but rather a play about man’s inhumanity to man, as exemplified by a group of selfish, short-sighted, and very human clowns deciding to go to war. We are inspired by our many absurdist forebears, such as Dr. Strangelove, Monty Python, Catch-22, and various styles of slapstick, vaudeville, and modern clown. We are not above spit takes and stagey slaps, but we also allude to drone strikes and PTSD. We have a new collection of props, including some scary-looking weapons. Still, we remain deadly serious in our commitment to comedy.

Photo: Seth Bockley. Pictured: Fernando Cordova, Artús Chávez.

Devon de Mayo, our Chicago-based co-creator, arrives tomorrow (12/16/11) and we will have new material to show her. In the meantime, we bike through the city, dodging traffic on our way to rehearsal. Did I mention it’s 75 degrees outside?

Seth Bockley is a playwright and director at large. His plays include February House (with lyricist/composer Gabriel Kahane), Ask Aunt Susan, The Twins Would Like To Say, Laika’s Coffin, Boneyard Prayer. Adaptations: Jon and CommComm (from short stories by George Saunders). Directing: The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg, Civilization (all you can eat) and 1001 by Jason Grote, and Jon, winner of the 2008 Jeff Award for Best New Adaptation. He was a recipient of Theater Communications Group’s New Generations grant from 2005-2007, and is currently an artist in residence at the University of Chicago.

Devon de Mayo is a Chicago based director and the Co-Artistic Director of Dog & Pony Theatre Co. She serves as director of education at northlight theatre and also teaches adjunct at northwestern university, at the Chicago high school for the arts and the national high school institute. This spring Devon will direct a new musical for dog &pony and an adaptation of an actor prepares at the University of Chicago.

The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.