Juárez: In brief
After two years of research and interviews with inhabitants of Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, Theater Mitu mounts its documentary about life on the border, written and directed by Rubén Polendo. (The piece is part of this year's diversity-themed Theater:Village festival.)
Juárez: Theater review by Helen Shaw
There's no question that Rubén Polendo's Theater Mitu has approached Juárez: A Documentary Mythology as a labor of love. The ensemble committed more than three years of research and development to its portrait of a troubled Mexican city; the actors are palpably thrilled to be telling their story. But while the effort is heartfelt and admirable, the show is not good. The piece has been overworked nearly to death, though it feels like blasphemy to say so in an art so plagued by short rehearsal periods and resource-poor processes.
The style, familiar from docu-shows such as The Exonerated or The Laramie Project or anything by the Civilians, depends on the verbatim delivery of citizen interviews. The Mitus immersed themselves in Polendo's hometown of Ciudad Juárez—which began as a thriving Mexican border town, then became the cartel-riven “murder capital of the world,” and is now a hopeful city trying to rebuild. They talked to activists, journalists, a narco hitman, Polendo's relatives, and others who remember the city as it was and as it is. So far so good. But then Polendo and the ensemble (not always the experienced company members who started the process) strain each interaction through an exhaustive series of theatrical mechanisms. What's left is self-conscious and—weirdly for something so preoccupied with “witnessing”—self-regarding and false.
On a nearly empty stage, Polendo's team uses every imaginable device from verbatim plays: Woosterish in-ear microphones, actors reading from laptops, actors reading from index-cards, voiceovers (with various distortions applied) and supertitles. The actors move lights and the video projector around a space deliberately arranged to seem under construction. The program talks about these choices as ways to make the actors into “transmitters,” avowing their desire to “carry these words rather than inhabit them.”
So if lines aren't supposed to be 'performed,' why linger so dreamily, so sentimentally over them? (This applies to everything from an old lady's nostalgia to a man's memories of being brutally kidnapped.) The actors' gluey delivery scuttles any attempt at documentary detachment…and, paradoxically, emotional connection too. Also, are those ostentatious in-ear microphones speaking to them in Spanish? Of course not. All this truthiness shades into fakery, and, frankly, this iteration of the ensemble isn't strong enough to pretend not to know their lines.
At times, Polendo's literal-mindedness is accidentally funny. If someone says “connected at the hip,” cast-members bump hips. No moment is allowed to go unillustrated: Within the course of a great-grandmother's story about the old days there's a tuneless song (in pale imitation of the Civilians' burlesque style), some shadow-play and fake snow. Nor are the visual metaphors particularly inventive: A history of drug violence is acted out as Mexican wrestling, and little kids dreaming of professions are illustrated with hand-drawn cartoons. Every stylistic gesture is abandoned almost as soon as it's made, so no aesthetic poetry develops. Composition is the art of selection; this is just a panicky catalogue of everything you can throw at a stage. Juárez may be city of borders, intersections, contradictions and hopes, but the messiness of this portrait doesn't reveal that complexity; it obscures it.
Polendo, usually a visually compelling stager, has had his good sense overwhelmed, perhaps because the material is intensely personal. We begin and end with home-video of his family, but his voice has been notably absent in the intervening 90 minutes of talk about femicide and narcoterrorism. In everything else there's a written-by-committee quality, as well as a whiff of academic overthink, or even the undergrad dorm room bull session. It bodes ill when early on an actor says (and the text is reiterated behind him in an unnecessary supertitle): “So, as we go around talking to the citizens of Juárez, the biggest question for us us is how do we do this—as the artists who we are—How do we do it?” Eek. That's the biggest question? The ethics of docudrama are sticky indeed, but it might have been smarter to go in with bigger questions than that.—Theater review by Helen Shaw