Arts & Culture

New play 'The San Patricios' reveals American history

Erik Stein as Ringmaster Polk and other cast members during a rehearsal for PCPA Theaterfest's production of "The San Patricios."
Erik Stein as Ringmaster Polk and other cast members during a rehearsal for PCPA Theaterfest's production of "The San Patricios."

"Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you a magnificent world of wonder, of histories and mysteries, of curiosities and freaks,” declares Ringmaster Polk in PCPA Theaterfest’s latest production.

“Something so truly astounding,” he promises, “that it will amaze you.” 

“The San Patricios,” which makes its world premiere Friday, reveals a fascinating yet mostly forgotten chapter of American history. Directed by company artistic director Mark Booher and written by Jose Cruz González, the politically charged play uses music to help tell the story of several hundred immigrants, expatriates and escaped slaves from the United States who fought for Mexico during the Mexican-American War. 

“I’m trying to tell a story that is not often told on the historical stage,” said González, a professor of theater arts at California State University, Los Angeles.

“The San Patricios,” which has been in the works for two years, comes on the heels of two collaborations between PCPA Theaterfest and the playwright: “The Heart’s Desire” in 2008 and “Invierno” in 2010.

While working on “Invierno,” a retelling of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” set on the Central Coast during the Mexican Rancho era, the PCPA Theaterfest team — led by Booher, González and the late Patricia M. Troxel, PCPA director and literary manager — came across the tale of the St. Patrick’s Battalion. 

According to González, many battalion members were Irish immigrants forced by famine, poverty and discrimination to leave their homeland.

“They were fleeing a country that couldn’t feed them, and they were also fleeing a country that basically subjected them to being second citizens,” he said, adding that the immigrants encountered equally dire conditions when they arrived in the United States. Desperate for work, many joined the American military. 

When the soldiers were shipped off to Mexico, González said, “They were confronted with a number of issues: First of all, ‘I’m fighting for this country that mistreats me.’ Two, ‘I’m Catholic and I’m fighting other Catholics.’ ”

Tempted by offers of large land grants, high wages and religious freedom, they crossed front lines to fight on the side of Mexico as the so-called “Batallon de San Patricio.”

To research the story behind “The San Patricios,” González pored over books, letters and more than 600 pages of notes from the court trial of 70-some battalion members — about 30 of whom were executed for desertion in a horrific mass hanging. 

He also enlisted the help of Michael Dempsey, PCPA Theaterfest’s conservatory director of technical training and resident history buff, and Manuel Aguilar, an art professor at Cal State L.A. 

 “It was really important to put a human face on this story,” González said, adding that the story and much of the dialogue is taken from contemporary accounts. “Everything in here is what people said and wrote.” 

At the center of “The San Patricios” are two women whose families become swept up in the struggle: Irish immigrant Mary Casey (Megan C.C. Walker), whose husband Matthew (Paul Henry) joins the American army, and Ofelia (Anna Lamadrid), whose brother Juan (Kevin Rico Angulo) enlists as a cadet in the Mexican ranks. Both women eventually take up arms for Mexico. 

“Stories of war tend to be stories of men,” Booher said, so PCPA Theaterfest was eager to provide a different perspective.

Serving as narrators are U.S. President James K. Polk (Erik Stein) and Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Leo Cortez), re-envisioned as circus ringmasters. 

“To some degree, the political leaders were seen as puppet masters,” Booher explained, pulling the strings while their soldiers paid the price.

Other real-life figures such as Irish immigrant and U.S. Army deserter John Riley (Jeff Salsbury), who commanded the St. Patrick’s Battalion, also show up in the play. Many of the 12 performers play multiple roles. 

They also sing and play instruments on stage, including guitars, tin whistles and spoons.

“Music to me is one of the historical formats that a lot of cultures have used to record events,” said composer Daniel Valdez, a founding member of El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista. “You’ll find that if you’ll study the musical culture, you’ll be able to understand the inner story of the culture itself.”

His soundtrack for “The San Patricios” includes traditional Irish tunes, Mexican military marches, sacred songs and calliope music befitting the circus-like atmosphere. 

One of Valdez’s musical reference points was The Chieftains’  2010 album “San Patricio,” which pays tribute to the St. Patrick’s Battalion while emphasizing the musical connections between Ireland and Mexico.

“There’s definitely a lot of ties,” said the composer, citing, for example, the similarities between the Irish jig and the Mexican zapateado. “That’s the attempt of the whole play, to try and bridge those cultural influences together.”

Although set in the past, “The San Patricios” has important implications for the present, Booher and González said, especially in light of the current debate over immigration.

“Who are the immigrants? The truth is, it’s all of us,” with the exception of Native Americans, Booher said. “Hopefully, (the play) brings some humanity and compassion in dealing with each other.”

If you go

‘The San Patricios’

7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; through Aug. 17

Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria

$29.50 to $37.50, discounts for seniors and students

8 p.m. Aug. 28 through Sept. 7

Solvang Festival Theater, 420 Second St., Solvang

$38.50 to $49, discounts for seniors and students

922-8313 or