Grand ‘Beautiful North’ looks to epic tales for inspiration

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Ilse Zacharias (from left), Miguel Nuñez and Esteban Andres Cruz in “Into the Beautiful North” at 16th Street Theatre. | PHOTO BY ANTHONY AICARDI

Epic quest stories are nothing new – from “Don Quixote” to “The Magnificent Seven” to “Lord of the Rings,” tales of unlikely heroes conquering all in order to save the world, their country, themselves are familiar to anyone with even a glancing interest in movies, novels or theater.

‘Into the Beautiful North’ Highly Recommended When: Through June 17 Where: 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St., Berwyn Tickets: $18-$22 More info:

With “Into the Beautiful North,” Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater mines the tropes of a familiar form while revolutionizing it for a 21st century audience. Instead of errant cowboys and woeful knights, we get heroes in the form of resilient, resourceful teenage Mexican girls.

Co-directed by Miguel Nunez and Ann Filmer, Karen Zacarias’ adaptation of Luis Alberto Urrea’s epic novel hews closely to the original source in creating a world that’s both intensely specific and enduringly universal. The young protagonists might be on a quest to save their tiny town from drug traffickers, but their pluck and smarts wouldn’t be out of place in the New England of “Little Women” or Panem of “The Hunger Games.”

At first glance, Urrea’s book isn’t a likely candidate for stage adaptation. It’s packed with more than 100 characters and covers thousands of miles as its heroes voyages back and forth from a tiny Mexican village to Kankakee, Illinois. Nunez and Filmer manage to capture both the vast scope of the story and the singular details that make it unique. Their eight-person ensemble throws its collective heart into the staging, delivering a drama that feels like it features a cast of hundreds.

The sweeping plot begins as Nayeli, a teenage waitress, her boss Tacho and her best friend Vampi vow to save their town from an incursion of brutal narco-trafficantes. Nayeli’s plan is to journey to the United States to find her long absent father, who will lead a charge of “seven magnificent men” to defeat the cartel. Nayeli decides her long-absent father will lead the seven. She carries his postcard – date-stamped from Kankakee – like a talisman.

Pictured in foreground are Esteban Andres Cruz (from left), Allyce Torres, Ilse Zacharias, Laura Crotte in “Into the Beautiful North” at 16th Street Theatre. | PHOTO BY ANTHONY AICARDI

Pictured in foreground are Esteban Andres Cruz (from left), Allyce Torres, Ilse Zacharias, Laura Crotte in “Into the Beautiful North” at 16th Street Theatre. | PHOTO BY ANTHONY AICARDI

As Nayeli, Ilse Zacharias is a formidable presence – and not just because the character is ferociously good at karate. Zacharias captures the wide-eyed innocence of a young woman who has never traveled beyond her hometown, and the fierceness of a born warrior. Her evolution is subtle but unmistakable. Without indulging in spoilers, Nayeli’s ultimate, radiant triumph lies in her own self-discovery as much as her battle with the narcos.

Nayeli’s fellow travelers are equally memorable. As the ultra-goth girl Vampi, Allyce Torres is the sharp-edged cynic to Nayeli’s boundless optimism (and rocks black lipstick like nobody’s business.) Vampi undergoes changes as profound as Nayeli, and Torres makes them visible both outwardly and inwardly.

Filmer and Nunez did well in luring former Chicagoan Esteban Andres Cruz back from L.A. for the production. As Tacho, Cruz serves up a mix of vulnerability and don’t-mess-with-me strength, giving the unapologetically gay Tacho a spine of steel.

Zacharias leads the ensemble, but its undeniable anchor is Laura Crotte as Nayeli’s aunt Tia Irma. Irma is both the mayor of Tres Camerones and Mexico’s reigning bowling champ – both of which are altogether believable in Crotte’s unabashedly sensuous and uncompromisingly imperious Irma. It’s a powerhouse performance that may well leave you wishing Tia Irma were real, and considering a run for office Stateside.

For all the triumphant joy bursting from “Into the Beautiful North,” the production doesn’t shy away from the violence and danger that often awaits those who try to cross from Mexico into the U.S. without proper papers. There’s a tunnel scene that will make you feel like you’ve been buried alive, and gay bashing scene that’s difficult to watch. In trying to escape rape and murder at the hands of the Mexican narcos, Nayeli and her cohorts run headlong into hate crimes north of the border.

There are no fancy production values in “Into the Beautiful North.” Joanna Iwanicki’s minimalist set design is a series of rust-colored, correlated walls that slide and open to imply buses, restaurants, mountain tops and the massive, foreboding “border fence” that stretches along the boundary between Mexico and the U.S.

Minus the frills, “Into the Beautiful North” relies almost exclusively on human feats of storytelling. Those are in ample evidence here, and that’s a beautiful thing.

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