Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Travelers
Magic Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas

Brian Rivera, Juan Amador, Guillermo "Yiyo" Ornelas,
Daniel Duque-Estrada, and Kinan Valdez

Photo by Jay Yamada
If you're seeking theatre that pushes the boundaries of what we expect from the art form, you ought to consider purchasing a "Performance Pass," Magic Theatre's version of a subscription. For the Magic, helmed by Lead Director Sean San José, is producing some of the most challenging, fascinating, and occasionally oddball theatre in the Bay Area. Their current production, Luis Alfaro's The Travelers, directed by Catherine Castellanos, is a thrilling, quirky, disturbing, sometimes hilarious 85 minutes of theatrical art that feels like something Samuel Beckett might have written if he'd grown up in California's Central Valley instead of a suburb of Dublin, Ireland.

The Travelers tells the story of a group of Carthusian monks living in a rundown charter house in Grangeville, California, a very small (population 469) town south of Fresno. The monks–Brother Brian, Brother Daniel, Brother Nancho, Brother Yiyo, and Brother Ogie–are already living a life on the edge, short on food, with the archdiocese threatening to cut off what little funding they receive from the Mother Church, when their rustic life is interrupted by the entrance of Juan (Juan Amador), who comes stumbling in, bleeding from a chest wound, and collapses in the courtyard. (The effective set, by Tanya Orellana is a collection of piles of earth studded with candles, plus a clawfoot bathtub, toilet, and a projection surface that runs the width of the stage, displaying a variety of imagery over the course of the play. At walk-in, the image is of a desolate and desiccated ranch property, reinforcing the poverty of this tiny group of monks.)

After some discussion of who this man might be and how he came to be lying, perhaps dead, in their courtyard–is he Mexican? Salvadoran? "Let's just agree he's not Jesus," Brother Nancho offers–they agree to take him in and care for him. Yet, just as the archdiocese seems to offer little to this cadre of monks, the brothers offer nothing in terms of actual care to Juan. They consider dumping him at the local hospital ("like the killers do"), but they do not dress his wounds, take him to a bed, or even pray over him. Despite Brother Brian's insistence that "we minister to those in need" ("But not in an Urgent Care kind of way," Brother Yiyo reminds him), they continue to argue over what to do when Juan suddenly gasps and comes to consciousness.

From this point, Juan (played with a somewhat frenetic, wide-eyed wonder by Juan Amador), reluctantly and in halting stages, becomes part of the order. The other monks outfit him with a cassock and rosary, and slowly Juan becomes part of this odd family of men making their way apart from the chaotic, noisy, secular world outside their compound. Yet life inside the monastery can be rather chaotic, as well: Brother Ogie (Ogie Zulueta) lives in the bathtub; Brother Nancho (Kinan Valdez) often acts more like a streetwise playa than a man who has taken vows of poverty and chastity; and Brother Yiyo (Guillermo "Yiyo" Ornelas) spins through scenes with the nervous, twitching energy of a field mouse constantly scanning its environment for the next deadly threat. Brother Daniel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) was previously a clown and circus master who lost everything after being sued by Cirque du Soleil for copyright infringement: "French-Canadians," he says "are very terrible greedy people."

Brian Rivera, who was brilliant in last year's The Great Khan at San Francisco Playhouse, plays a similar sort of authority figure here. Brother Brian seems to have the only contact with the outside world, and orders his minions about with a pope's sense of infallibility.

The themes at play here–abandonment, retreat, powerlessness–weave in and out of Alfaro's text so smoothly that you never see the seams, and the play becomes like a silken scarf that warms yet also threatens to choke. The Travelers is a show one must surrender to: caught in the rapids of its swift-flowing dialogue, all you can do is point yourself downstream and wait for the churning waters to bring you to a calm stretch of river and find your way to shore.

The Travelers runs through March 5, 2023, at Magic Theatre at Fort Mason, Two Marina Boulevard, Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$70. For tickets and information, please visit, call 415-441-8822, or visit the box office, which is open Monday-Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and on Saturday one hour prior to curtain.