Acheron: Brutal and Brilliant at New Ohio

Acheron: River of Tragedy at the New Ohio Theater for the ICE Festival

XIPE Colectivo Escénico
By Xavier Villanova
Directed by Martin Balmaceda
Featuring Aline Lemus Bernal and Cinthia Perez Navarro

Two grey suits. One chair. A blackbox theater transformed into an arroyo, a ship, the river itself. Two bodies locked in combat, straining in pursuit, sprawled unconscious. Two souls adrift on an odyssey through liminal space. Two men on the border between the US and Mexico. 

A typical story these days: immigration, drug trafficking, profit, violence, humanity. The grass— and the dollars— are greener on the other side. But the familiar tale takes on mythic, queer proportions at the hands of Martin Balmaceda and XIPE Colectivo Escénico. Acheron: River of Tragedy weaves cinematic references, characters from Greek mythology, and Mexican macho culture into a complex web of cosmic irony, surreal horror, and offbeat humor. The production, delivered in Spanish with subtitles projected on the back wall, creates a hallucinatory dilemma of meaning-making. What’s the real story? Is it a legend, a Mexploitation narco-filme fantasy, a mistranslated drug trip gone awry? And who are these guys, anyways? 

The stage at the New Ohio Theater, with its warehouse-like construction, offers an industrial tone. Bernal and Perez Navarro duck around pillars as if hiding behind trees and stroll between railings as if walking the length of a prison, animating the entire space with aggressive energy. The lighting evokes the trippy blur of drug use and the harsh confines of an interrogation room. The characters swim through a timeless state, an endless interim, a watery threshold.

Two men regard each other. One asks for the time. The other doesn’t reply. The first man repeats the question. A Beckettian exchange transpires: no answers, just simmering impatience and a steady descent into one-sided conversational madness. One man, as yet unnamed, gestures with his hands and puts his hands in his pockets and doesn’t quit talking until the other man, also unnamed, grabs him by the throat and throws him to the ground and punches the shit out of him. The man standing— we know him now as Nicanor— tells us to trust no one. We sure don’t. 

Bernal and Perez Navarro attack each scene with startling dynamism and commitment, moving swiftly and convincingly from rigid interrogations to brawling fistfights to swooning coked-out benders. The connection between Leonardo (Bernal) and Nicanor (Perez Navarro) is charged, brutal, and erotic— a masculine bond forged by a larger architecture of state violence and surveillance.

Leo and Nicky could be cellmates in Genet’s prison, blowing smoke through a hole in the wall. Instead, Leo slumps naked on a chair, hooded and gagged, while Nicky, consummate cabron, paces and smokes and snorts behind him. Who is the villain here? How would we know? Balmaceda’s treatment of Villanova’s original text highlights this ambiguity while the genderfucked casting and extreme physicality create a savage, uncanny atmosphere. The poetics of identity formation and ego death hang heavy between the two characters.

Fueled by drugs and exhausted by the journey along the border, Leo and Nicky become manic and fragmented. They misname each other and rename themselves, losing grip, envisioning futures in which they’re prosperous American citizens. They talk about “the other side,” el otro lado, beyond the beyond. The drugs simulate death, as does the border crossing itself: to trip is to approach your demise, in a sense, and to immigrate is another existential severance. Charon’s fare: forgetting yourself on the banks of the river.

A vicious, beautiful play, Acheron: River of Tragedy offers a fresh take on an ancient narrative. 

Two figures approach each other. They could be brothers, countrymen, mortal enemies. In a world obsessed with borders, they are fundamentally different and dangerously similar. Though the audience leaves the theater, their ghostly journey will continue— Leonardo and Nicanor appear again and again, in the news and on the radio, reminding us that our fragile identities come at a cost. 

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