at Latino Chicago Theater Company

Bernabe–written by Luis Valdez and the first production of Latino Chicago Mujeres, a women’s auxiliary of sorts within Latino Chicago Theater Company–is one of the most blatantly sexist plays ever presented by Latino Chicago. Its two female roles are–literally–virgin and whore. If you have a smidgen of conscience, stay away. The Latino Chicago women’s group has tried so hard to avoid the political implications of its existence that it’s gone in exactly the opposite direction: Bernabe embraces negative stereotypes as if they were endangered species.

Politics aside, the production also lacks focus, is painfully paced, and spotlights some atrocious acting. Moreover, its promotion as a bilingual piece is a bit deceiving. It’s unnecessary to speak Spanish to follow this play, but if you don’t speak English you’ll be hopelessly lost.

Bernabe concerns a mentally retarded, unemployed farm worker in a dusty southern California town, whose friends and relatives have deemed him a harmless source of amusement. While they’re not looking, Bernabe finds refuge in a hole in the earth. Here he revels in and makes love to the dirt.

Playwright Valdez, the author and producer of Zoot Suit and La Bamba, wants this construct to work as a loving symbol of the relationship between good men and the earth. There’s a lot of talk about how Bernabe, mournfully played by Felipe Camacho, is the only one who loves the earth for its purity and beauty, while all around him other men buy and sell land for profit.

The metaphor is extended through Primo, Bernabe’s well-intentioned cousin, and Torres, a local landowner. Together they run the town’s whorehouse, where saucy Consuelo operates. As played by Heather Graff, Consuelo is red dressed, flamboyant, and lascivious. There’s not a trace of nuance to her portrayal, not a hint of sadness or abuse, even though we later see Torres beating her and understand that this is a common occurrence. “She does what I tell her!” he bellows. Nothing suggests that either Valdez or director Michelle Banks thinks this kind of behavior is anything but quotidian.

Needless to say, the earth/woman metaphor doesn’t quite work. The women are positioned only as extremes: the whore who is capable of swallowing men alive (Bernabe’s big fear), and the pure earth whose virginity is extolled. In this tale sex is literally dirty. That the roles of Bernabe’s mother and of La Tierra, the female embodiment of the earth, are played by the same actor only adds a disturbing dimension to the playwright’s limited perception of women’s possibilities. In the end the alleged virgin/earth swallows Bernabe, confirming one of the oldest and most negative female stereotypes. According to Valdez and Banks, all women–even the highly prized virgins–are capable of destroying men.

What we get in Bernabe is not a story about love, organic or otherwise. Instead, we get a story of men abusing and exploiting women; women are possessions to be owned and bartered. Even when Bernabe has ostensibly won the heart of La Tierra, he must ask for her father’s permission to love her.

The story begins one morning when Bernabe, pursued by his haranguing mother, stumbles upon the local whorehouse. The mother, played on the night I attended by assistant director Susana Aguilar, hurls a mouthful of insults at Consuelo, including a completely gratuitous “Lesbiana!” She nags at Bernabe and sends him off on an errand. When Primo sees her, he lends her some money and inquires about Bernabe. She tells him Bernabe needs a job and that he’s crazy. This insanity is confirmed when Primo and Torres hear Bernabe babbling about his lover the earth.

From this Primo decides that what Bernabe really needs is a roll in the sack with Consuelo, who’s glad to do it for a price. But Bernabe resists, not out of nobility but out of fear that Consuelo will destroy him. The process of getting Bernabe in bed with the whore is excruciatingly long and meaningless. What little humor there is in Bernabe takes place during this scene, most of it at the expense of women. Eventually Bernabe freaks out, scuffles with Torres, then runs wildly back to his hole in the earth, erroneously believing he’s killed Torres.

The fantasy sequence that follows, intended to evoke a sense of wonder, comes off as condescending and ludicrous. In this scene Valdez invests not just the earth but also the moon and the sun with human personas. The moon in particular seems to hark back to the cool, unseen Pachuco conscience of Zoot Suit; but played by Gustavo Mellado (who also plays Torres), the moon is utterly lacking in panache. Worse is Michael Ramirez’s portrayal of the sun, La Tierra’s cigar-chewing father. Other than flashing that prop, Ramirez offers virtually nothing in his gestures or persona that would distinguish the sun from his other role as Tio, Bernabe’s drunken uncle and Primo’s accomplice in getting Bernabe to bed with Consuelo.

This scene, an elaborate wedding ritual between Bernabe and La Tierra, is the zenith of the play’s faulty logic. Although Bernabe has shown nothing but a stumbling stupidity, we’re to believe that the rulers of the universe are ready and willing to hand over their prize, La Tierra. We’re to believe that from the fearful Bernabe and La Tierra there will spring a liberated “cosmic race.”

Even more perplexing is the fact that the story takes place in the 1960s: 30 years later the promise of deliverance it attempts to make is woefully moot. Why was there no update? And why in heaven’s name did Latino Chicago do this play in the first place?