BWW Review: LA RUTA at Artists Rep
Hundreds, if not thousands, of women, most of them young, have disappeared from Juárez, Mexico, since 1993. Many of them have have shown up raped and murdered, their bodies dumped in the desert or on city streets.
No one knows exactly who is taking these women, though there are many theories - including organized crime, drug dealers, sexual predators, even police officers. Most shocking is the fact that no one in a position of power is really trying to solve the mystery, which is why the mothers of the victims have taken it upon themselves to fight for justice.
Many of the women who have disappeared were workers at maquiladoras, factories owned by foreign (usually U.S.) companies that began to sprout up after the passage of NAFTA. The trade agreement allowed these companies to take advantage of cheaper labor south of the border. The workers were bussed to the factories, and for some their fellow bus passengers were the last to see them alive.
This bus journey sets the scene for Isaac Gomez's LA RUTA, Artists Rep's latest offering, now running at the Hampton Opera Center. As the lights come up, it's 1996, and we find two friends, Yolanda (Cristi Miles) and Marisela (Diana Burbano) waiting in the middle of the night for Yolanda's daughter, Brenda (Marissa Sanchez), to get off of the bus. Brenda doesn't appear, and the rest of the play bounces back and forth in time, slowly closing in on what happened the day of her disappearance.
LA RUTA has several major strengths. Gomez conducted extensive interviews and all of the characters are based on real people (read Marisela Escobedo's story). This provides both authenticity and depth, which is facilitated by powerful performances, most notably from Burbano, who beautifully portrays Marisela's journey to finding her power, and Miles, who elevates denial into an art form.
While not a musical, LA RUTA is a play with music, and that music, composed and performed by Fabi Reyna, is sublime. When she sings, solo or along with the rest of the cast, you can feel the mothers' anguish in your bones. This feeling is enhanced by the beautiful scenic and lighting design by Christopher Acebo and Blanca Forzán, respectively. The moment you walk in, you'll notice the crosses hanging from the ceiling - keep an eye on them and how they change with the lighting.
The weakness of LA RUTA is that for a drama about a mystery, it's not all that dramatic or mysterious. The construction, i.e., moving back and forth in time to close in Brenda's disappearance, suggests that there will be a big reveal on that day. This is not the case. There are several moments of foreshadowing gone too far, one of which occurs in the first 10 minutes, robbing the play of any sort of suspense or dramatic punch.
There are also several scenes that feel repetitive and the characters, especially Yolanda, often act in ways that are difficult to understand. The result is a play about a highly emotional topic that somehow manages (except for the music) to be not particularly emotional.
This is only the second-ever production of LA RUTA (the first was at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company), and Gomez is still working on it - on opening night Rodríguez said that 20 pages had been rewritten during rehearsals. I look forward to seeing how the play evolves as it (hopefully) finds its balance between honoring the women and heightening the dramatic action.
LA RUTA runs through December 1. More details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Kathleen Kelly