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Theatre in Review: the way she spoke (Minetta Lane Theatre)

Kate del Castillo. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Isaac Gomez's new work is an honest and honorable attempt at tackling an appalling, long-running injustice; that it is a losing battle says much about the difficulty of the material, which may be immune to dramatic treatment, at least in the format employed here. Gomez's subject is the quarter-century-long wave of femicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, along the Texas border. The victims work in maquilas, foreign-owned factories located in tariff-free zones. According to Wikipeida, three-hundred-seventy such murders were documented between 1993 and 2005. One shudders to think how many more have happened since. Typically, the women have been raped, their bodies mutilated.

It's a terrible story, made worse by the inaction of the Mexican government. The killings remain unsolved, although local gangs and drug cartels have often been cited; it is also possible that these are twisted acts of revenge by unemployed men furious that women are finding work outside the home. Major news outlets -- including The New York Times -- have covered the story, and it is the subject of at least one major book, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields, by Charles Bowden. Gomez made an earlier pass at this material in a play, La Ruta, which premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre last winter. It would be interesting to compare it with the way she spoke, which is ultimately overwhelmed by the events it covers.

The play's subtitle, "a docu-mythologia," may be a clue to what ails it. The narrator (more about whom in a moment), says, chillingly, "There is no better place in the world to kill a girl than in Juárez," adding, "I read that in a magazine once." A mother remembers frantically calling the cellphone of her missing daughter and getting no answer; on the umpteenth attempt, a man picked up and confirmed that he had the girl. The mother begged him for mercy, offering him money, but he hung up; she has heard nothing since. A former factory worker says, "You see the bus drivers always end up raping the last girl on the bus. It's typical. It happens. A lot of girls fall asleep on the buses on the way home and then wham! It's over." In a scathing comment on the government's indifference, we are told, "Sometimes... they deliver bags of bones to parents of lost girls hoping that'll shut them up. Most of the time, those aren't even their bones, but someone else's." The script contains vivid descriptions of mutilations that I can't bear to repeat.

Such details are enough to make one's skin crawl, but, for most of its running time, the way she spoke suffers from a kind of inertia. For all its jolting close-ups of these depraved crimes, this remains an account of the deaths of hundreds of anonymous women at the hands of persons unknown for reasons unknown, unfolding across a decades-long time frame and largely left uninvestigated. The horror it evokes is pervasive; it is also non-specific. One can speculate -- and, obviously, some kind of institutionalized and deep-seated hatred of women is involved -- but seeing the way she spoke is rather like reading a text that has been redacted by an official censor.

Perhaps as a way of injecting drama into the proceedings, Gomez has wrapped them in a metatheatrical frame. Kate del Castillo, who comprises the entire cast, plays The Actress, appearing on an empty stage to read for the lead role in -- wait for it -- the way she spoke. Gomez, the author, is the unseen presence -- presumably sitting in the audience -- to whom she speaks. The main narrator role is that of Gomez; the script details his trip to Ciudad Juárez -- he grew up in Juarez, Texas, just across the border -- to interview the survivors of the killings. Del Castillo begins by tentatively reading the script -- she confesses to not having picked it up previously -- and, gradually, the play takes over and she assumes various roles.

It's an interesting strategy that backfires; rather than making the story more immediate, it distracts, turning the way she spoke into a drama about the anguish of an actress faced with horrible subject matter. But, surely, her feelings are the least of it; even if you accept her as a kind of stand-in for us, the effect is trivializing. This approach -- which, ultimately, is too clever by half -- exposes the enterprise's central weakness: It is designed to make the audience feel terrible, but not really to illuminate or provide insight into the awful events it covers.

Del Castillo, who has a lengthy list of credits in film and television, is talented and certainly game, but her work may be too small and naturalistic to work in this context. She speaks very fast, slipping in and out of Spanish, and you may find yourself reaching to make out what she is saying. She doesn't always supply the supporting characters with sufficiently distinctive identities; at times, I wasn't sure who was speaking. In any case, she isn't getting much help from her designers. Riccardo Hernandez's scenic design leaves the actress stranded on a vast, open stage, a strategy that militates against any sense of intimacy. Similarly, Lap Chi Chu's lighting doesn't provide strong clues to the play's various levels of reality. As the action slips from character vignettes to Gomez's narration to inside the actress' head, you might not always be certain where you are.

Other contributions, including Emilio Sosa's costume, Elisheba Ittoop's sound design, and Aaron Rhyne's projections -- especially a landscape dotted with pink crosses memorializing the dead -- are rather better, but Jo Bonney, the accomplished director, hasn't provided a setting that would allow us to get close to the star, nor has she guided her sufficiently through the script's more complex thickets.

Ultimately, the way she spoke is best appreciated as an alarm bell rung to alert an indifferent world to a situation that is in desperate need of addressing, and if it succeeds in doing so, it will have been well worth the effort. Then again, the script tries, at the very last minute, to enlarge its argument, suggesting that such atrocities are happening everywhere, with women the victims. No, not everywhere, although the world certainly will not be running out of depravity any time soon.

But evil is always particular and it needs to be understood in the framework of where and when it happens. Placing the victims of the maquila killings in the context of some vast global conspiracy against women strips them of their dignity by ignoring the singular nature of their suffering. Gomez's play works as a catalog of mortal sins but no more; it upsets one and leaves one feeling helpless at the same time. --David Barbour


(29 July 2019)

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