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Review: LA RUTA at Stray Cat Theatre

Review: LA RUTA at Stray Cat Theatre

The production, directed by Chris R. Chávez, runs through December 17th at Tempe Center for the Arts.

BroadwayWorld/Phoenix is again delighted to welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to its pages ~ as always, featuring his distinctive, well-balanced, and intelligent perspective on theatre. In this case, he shines the light on Stray Cat Theatre's production of LA RUTA.

Sometimes it happens; there's a moment when watching a play so dramatic in its telling, so harrowing in its content, you suddenly realize you can no longer describe what you're witnessing as having entertainment value. That doesn't lessen its importance. If done convincingly well, advising others to go see what you've just seen becomes compulsory. LA RUTA by writer Isaac Gomez is such a play. The importance of its subject needs to be seen and the story it tells needs to be known.

Now playing until December 17 at Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe, directed by Chris R. Chávez and presented by Stray Cat Theatre, LA RUTA (THE ROAD) is the kind of play that benefits from prior knowledge. Knowing in advance a little about writer Isaac Gomez and why he wrote LA RUTA helps elevate a better understanding of what audiences will be hearing.

Example: the word Femicide. To most of us, it's a new word, particularly as its definition is not something that ordinarily applies to our everyday lives; at least, not where we live on this side of the border. But to Ciudad Juárez and its poor, rural surrounding communities, Femicide is a daily, ugly phenomenon. It means the intentional murder of women simply because they're women.

The setting is Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a city on the Rio Grande, just south of El Paso, Texas, the time, between 1998 and 2000. Two local women wait by the bus stop. Marisela (Estrella Paloma Parra) is trying to hand out awareness pamphlets relating to the widespread femicide affecting the community. Amazingly, passers-by don't want to know. Yolanda (Dolores E. Mendoza) is there waiting for her daughter, Brenda (an effectively vulnerable Maria Cruz) who the mother thinks might be late coming home from work from the factory. At first, writer Gomez injects a little humor into the dialog between the two ladies. When Marisela humorously talks of philosophical questions in life that need to be answered, she declares, quoting singer Joan Osborne, "What if God is one of us?" to which Yolanda replies, "You got it from that song on the radio!"

But as the scene continues, a heavy feeling of dread soon overcomes the audience. Because of what we're already aware, we know certain things that Yolanda doesn't: We know, for instance, that Brenda is never coming home, and knowing this while watching her mother wait and worry is agonizing.

Briefly, some things of which you should be aware. Writer Gomez is from Ciudad Juárez, but his family moved across the river stateside to El Paso, which is where he grew up. He'd heard rumors of the femicide across the border but knew little of the details. After all, it wasn't anything that ever made the news. As a boy, he recalled that women were always escorted whenever they left the house, but Gomez considered that as being a chivalrous act of politeness, something that men of the area were expected to do. However, rumors of large-scale kidnappings persisted. After several years, Gomez went back to his hometown and talked directly with the women of the city. What he was told was startling. There was no doubt in his mind why Ciudad Juárez was conversationally known as 'The Capital of Murdered Women,' and he had to write about it.

LA RUTA refers to the road that takes the women from the town to the factories (the maquiladoras) near the border. They were new, low-paying factories that developed after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement near the border. Between the two destinations lies a stretch of dangerous, unprotected road where women become prey to kidnappers and gangs. Several women have simply disappeared from the town's streets, snatched while returning home. Some bodies have been found, left mutilated in the desert. Others have just vanished, never to be found, still missing. But what's truly staggering is not the fact that the police and even the government have turned a blind eye - the economic value of these factories is just too important to be messed with - is knowing that, according to an article in Texas Monthly, the number of killings - some performed simply as part of a gang initiation - isn't in the hundreds. The total is more than a staggering ten thousand.

Because of the play's construction and how the writer has framed his work, it helps to know some of these details before seeing LA RUTA. With a brisk running time of a hundred minutes, no intermission, the narrative often jumps back and forth between the years that it's highlighting. Occasionally, at a scene change, coming to terms with what you're watching may require a moment of adjustment, even though a time and date stamp is projected on a back screen wall letting us know that we're '45 Days After Brenda's Disappearance,' or '1 Day Before Brenda's Disappearance,' then later '3 Days After Brenda's Disappearance.' From a writing perspective, if you're unaware of the femicide stories and this is all new to you, learning of them directly through what is expressed by the characters in the play may feel murky, resulting in an unclear perspective and a reduced, emotional impact.

However, if by having only a brief awareness of these frightful events before you take your seat, everything that will soon unfold - the full, deep, emotional wallop of what you'll hear - will hit you with a power enough to make you catch your breath. "You can't imagine what they do!" the mother will later declare when referring to the gangs and the treatment of their female victims.

While everything you'll hear is true, Gomez has created fictional characters to inform us of the horrors. The major dramatic events happened - toxic masculinity is an accepted part of what the region refers to as a machista cultura - but it's how the dialog is exchanged between characters that is imagined.

To its credit, the play never illustrates the atrocities. On the slide projection that effectively creates backdrops to either the desert or the local city streets, there are no close-ups of bodies found. Everything is told through the perspectives of six women, (Amanda Lopez-Castillo, Alexandra "Sandy" Leon, and Tiffany Valenzuela round out a well-cast, emotionally supercharged production) living a life of pain and fear; the pain of not knowing what happened to loved ones and the fear that this nightmare will never end.

Marisela is based on a woman whose daughter was murdered by her boyfriend. At a trial, he confessed and told the police where the body could be found. The dismembered parts were in a trash bag in a dumpster. Yet the male dominated courts acquitted him of all charges. The machista cultura cleared the guilty.

LA RUTA is the second play in Stray Cat Theatre's 2022-2023 season where all acting and producing credits are BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) productions. It's an admirable opportunity for Valley audiences to see plays produced on a forum with such authentic voices. But, depending on how far you can overlook writer Gomez's occasional muddy construct and instead concentrate and embrace the full, torturous shock of its subject, LA RUTA should affect you in ways the previous BIPOC production at Stray Cat's season could ever achieve.

Don't be surprised if, during the final ten to fifteen minutes of the play when many of the real horrors and injustices are revealed through the gut-wrenching breakdowns of Yolanda and Marisela, you break into tears. It happened to several audience members during this past weekend's Sunday matinee which yours truly attended. It will happen when you go.

The production runs through December 17th.

Stray Cat Theatre ~ ~ 480-227-1766

Venue: Tempe Center for the Arts Studio Theatre, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ

Photo credit to John Groseclose

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