'Safe at Home' uses all the nooks and crannies of CHS Field to create an amazing piece

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Rich Ryan

As Mike Pence discovered, you can’t keep politics out of the theater. The same is true of the ballpark, argues a must-see play being presented by Mixed Blood Theatre at CHS Field.

Safe at Home

CHS Field
$25 guaranteed admission; free admission offered on a first come/first served basis

Safe at Home was written by Gabriel Greene and Alex Levy specifically to be staged at a ballpark, but the audience doesn’t sit in the bleachers: small groups are ushered through nine different spaces, ranging from a luxury suite to the clubhouse to a men’s bathroom. The actors stay in place, enacting nine scenes that are all several minutes in length. A system of screens and sound effects keeps all the groups of viewers moving in synchrony.

It’s an impressive technical achievement, one that would threaten to overwhelm the drama if the writing wasn’t so sharp and the acting wasn’t so impressive. Director Jack Reuler has assembled a top-notch cast, and it’s easy to imagine performers jumping at the opportunity to be a part of this unique adventure in site-specific theater.

The play is set in San Diego (so it’s lucky there’s no snow on the field right now). Game seven of a closely fought World Series is about to begin, and everyone’s wondering whether Castillo, the Padres’ mercurial star pitcher, will be at his best. In a pre-game press conference, a reporter (offstage at the time, appearing later in the person of Raúl Ramos) asks the team manager (Thomas W. Jones II) a bombshell question: Is there any truth to rumors that Castillo will refuse to pitch, in protest over the U.S. treatment of Latino immigrants?

A presidential election is looming, and the Democratic candidate (Regan Linton) is nervous. Her Republican rival isn’t seen or named, but he’s described as using explosive rhetoric and threatening to build a giant wall. As audience members walk through the park, they discover that the situation is bringing long-simmering tensions to a boil — between fans, among players, and even in the kitchen, where a Dominican-American vendor (Fernando Collado) resents being forced to sell unpopular churros instead of highly profitable beer.

Greene and Levy set themselves a daunting task: write nine scenes, all of them exactly the same length, each with its own structure and momentum, that tell a cumulative story about an unseen baseball game. They’ve pulled it off brilliantly, though, taking great advantage of the various spaces to draw the audience into a surprisingly claustrophobic world.

Audiences are in close with these actors, with views of their characters’ accustomed surroundings — from the luxury boxes with panoramic views to the long, bare corridor where players wait to enter the dugout like gladiators stepping into an arena. One of the most compelling settings is a windowless batting cage, surreally outfitted with lush green artificial turf. As a Major League Baseball executive (Mark Sieve) confronts the head umpire (Warren C. Bowles) about the potential player protest, it feels like the curtain is being pulled back on a cloistered brotherhood.

The play is precise in its exploration of race, which always looms even when it’s unspoken. A particularly telling scene, set in the men’s room, has Padres fan Barry (Ansa Akyea) begging his guest Mike (Michael Lee) to remove some obnoxious pro-Texas face paint. The fact that Barry is black while Mike is white is never specifically mentioned, but that fact turns an argument over team loyalty into a searing indictment of white identity politics.

Safe at Home is tense and pointed, while also entertaining on a lot of levels. In one scene, a perfectly cast Don Shelby (yes, the former news anchor) makes a commanding appearance as a newspaper mogul who also owns the home team. Then there’s a seemingly non sequitur scene that doesn’t quite work as drama, but it hardly matters because it also contains a mascot dance-off between a friar (Thalia Bea Kostman) and a chicken (Brian Bose).

At the conclusion of Safe at Home, the tension is high as we finally meet Castillo himself — played by Christopher Rivas, racked with agitation as he prepares to make the biggest decision of his life. Will he unleash his fastball, or will he decide that the time has come for America to set aside its pastime and confront its demons?

IF YOU GO:

Safe at Home
CHS Field
Through March 12


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