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In the Bichir brothers' sharp-edged 'eXtras,' a call for more humanity in the immigration debate

In the Bichir brothers' sharp-edged 'eXtras,' a call for more humanity in the immigration debate
Immigrants played by Odiseo Bichir, left, and Bruno Bichir emerge from the shadows to reenact their experiences in Hollywood in “eXtras.” (Christopher Brown)

"I need the Mexicans looking dispossessed," a frustrated assistant director barks at local townsfolk hired to add background color to the big-budget movie "Desposeidos!" In any dialect, the cue is all-too apropos: Their lowly status on the film set mirrors the societal bottom rung occupied by the undocumented protagonists of "eXtras," the sharp-edged, bicultural dramedy making its English-language premiere at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura.

A coproduction between Rubicon and Mexico City-based Foro Shakespeare, this two-actor, multicharacter tour de force transposes the plot and central metaphor of Marie Jones' "Stones in His Pockets" from Ireland to a desert California-Mexico border community. Here, as in the original, the residents' lives are upended by the invasion of a Hollywood movie crew. Sabina Berman's adaptation gives timely voice to the culturally dispossessed lurking in the shadows of our raging immigration debate.

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The production leverages the versatility of prominent stage, film and TV veterans Bruno and Odiseo Bichir, who, along with their Oscar-nominated brother Demian, performed "eXtras" in its original 2003 Spanish-language incarnation. (They rotated in the roles so that there would always be one "extra" waiting in the wings.)

The staging spotlights performance stripped to its essence, relying only on inventive use of red bandannas and atmospheric lighting shifts to conjure up a dizzying array of vivid characters.

Bruno, who also directed, brings whimsy and hilarious physical dexterity to characters ranging from wannabe screenwriter to pampered starlet to rowdy teenager. Odiseo exudes complementary gravitas as the rugged loner who becomes the starlet's love interest of the moment, the film's imperious but clueless director, and a leftist old timer who once had been an extra on the 1950s Elia Kazan film "Viva Zapata!" and still venerates its ideals.

Adding emotional resonance is the original score composed and performed by 17-year-old prodigy Maya Burns in a variety of styles -- traditional ranchero, corrido ballads, even Mexican Surfer Punk -- befitting the characters and their stories. (Burns and accompanist Marcos Ruedas also perform a half-hour preshow that's well worth an early arrival.)

Even during occasional Spanglish exchanges, the Bichir brothers differentiate their characters with precision and clarity that make following the narrative straightforward, entertaining and touching. The May 1 performance will be in Spanish, honoring Mexico's Labor Day.

Instead of building a wall, the piece advocates an inclusive vision of shared humanity that transcends racial, national and cultural borders.

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"eXtras," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 1. $44-$54. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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