Wednesday, July 24, 2019

47 (2019-2020): Review: the way she spoke (seen July 23, 2019)

“The Pink Crosses of Juárez”

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a city just over the border from El Paso, Texas, is notorious for the number of women raped, mutilated, and killed there since the 1990s. The extreme poverty of many of its residents has contributed to the horrific deaths of hundreds of women in what has been dubbed a wave of feminicide (feminicidio). Isaac Gomez’s (Steppenwolf’s La Ruta) the way she spoke is only the latest effort to bring the situation to those who might not be aware of it, although its tale of callous brutality and inhuman cruelty has been the subject of multiple books, poems, songs, and movies, both documentary and fictional.
All photos of Kate del Castillo by Joan Marcus.
Gomez, who grew up in El Paso and regularly visited family in Juárez during his childhood, is a Chicago-based playwright whose one-woman play uses an affected, lower-case title. It also employs an equally affected subtitle, “a docu-mythologia” (in the script but not on the program), The latter term is reiterated in the dialogue but the main title remains unexplained.

For all its tragic content, the way she spoke is far less emotionally affecting than might otherwise be imagined, partly because of Gomez’s narrative approach.
The set has been “designed” by Riccardo Hernandez to be nothing more than the brick-walled stage of the Minetta Lane Theatre, its furnishings a table and chair and nothing else. (Aside from the furniture, it could as easily serve for another current one-woman play, Jacqueline Novak: Get on Your Knee, at the Cherry Lane.) Lap Chu Li provides visual interest with unusual lighting transitions, and Aaron Rhyne’s projections of vaguely seen images offer subtle suggestions of the play’s world.

The play begins when, after knocking loudly at the stage right door, a beautiful actress, Kate del Castillo (a TV and movie star in her native Mexico), rushes in. (Gomez insists a Mexican actress play the part, not one from a long list of other Latin nations he mentions.) Chattering away, she recognizes the playwright, presumably sitting in the house. We take it this is Gomez, who appears to have once been her lover.
She complains about this and that, and relates how the men who just auditioned her for a part saw her only in terms of her looks for a stereotypical Latina sexpot. She proceeds to audition for the invisible playwright, slipping between her own and his voice. This is a cold reading, so she only grasps the potency of the material as she gets into it, stepping out of the script every now and then to talk to the director, sometimes reading from the script as it she’d never seen it before. Ultimately, she does without it at all.

The play-within-a-play, then, is the play we’ve come to see, intended for a solo performer, presented as part of an audition by an actress with exceptional sight-reading talents. It requires her to play both the playwright himself, who narrates the events, and the multiple other characters he encounters when visiting Juárez after many years to research the stories of the murdered and disappeared women.

Mostly in blank verse English, but with significant infusions of Spanish and Spanglish, the play introduces various characters whom the playwright ostensibly interviewed as he was driven around the dangerous part of the city by a local friend and her mom. We meet mothers; a butch bus driver who drove the women to and from their factory jobs; a man who confessed to murder, was nevertheless released from prison, and blames the police for the killings; and so on, including imaginary commentary from the Virgin Mary.
The names of numerous actual victims are recited, all symbolized by pink crosses erected as symbols of resistance to such slaughter. As the coup de grâce, the Actress recites—or does so until she reaches a point where she can’t go on—an endless list of victims, from a three-year old girl to elderly women, but mainly women in their teens and 20s.

The play exists not to offer solutions but merely to describe conditions, as if by exposing these the world will somehow rise up and do something about it. Looking at the half-filled theatre, it didn’t seem this approach was going to appeal to many would-be saviors. More a memoir than a drama, the way she spoke never theatricalizes its subject matter to the point where we become emotionally invested, even the roll call of names having little impact, although its intention is to overwhelm the Actress as much as the audience.
del Castillo is a talented actress, but so physically fit-looking in her black slacks and sleeveless black top it’s difficult to see beyond her sleek appearance to the world of hardship, pain, and blood envisioned by Gomez’s play. And while she’s lithe and graceful, she’s not a chameleon, able to clearly enough differentiate the characters’ physical and vocal differences so we always know who’s talking. Working under Jo Bonney's direction, she makes a strong effort but not enough to overcome the ennui that arises, regardless of the inherent power of the subject matter.

One thing a play about so dramatic a story (or accumulation of stories) should not be is undramatic. And one word a play like the way she spoke should never allow its audience to speak is “boring.”

Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through August 18