nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
April 8, 2011
It has been said that in order to really understand a place and its culture, you need to visit. If that is the case, to see El Gato Teatro’s dance theatre production Nuevo Laredo at Dixon Place is not unlike travelling 2000 miles from New York City without having to leave the theatre. This movement-driven piece directed and choreographed by Gabriella Barnstone has a spare feel to it, not unlike the wide open spaces one encounters in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican border town that in many ways acts as an alternate universe of lawlessness to Texas’s own town of Laredo.
Full disclosure: I grew up on the border, a stone’s throw from a town that—due to the escalation of cartel violence—now wears the infamous mantle of “murder capital of the world.” It was, then, with some anticipation and trepidation that I headed out to Nuevo Laredo. The omens for the evening pointed in a favorable direction when I entered Dixon Place and encountered Los Gorriones del Sur, an excellent band of mariachis playing in the theatre’s cozy lounge as part of the production’s pre-show.
The story, loosely constructed by Gabriella Barnstone and Ethan Lipton out of text by Charles Bowden and Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, is told in English and Spanish supplemented with subtitles projected on a white upstage wall. While the narrative does not delve deeply into plot, it effectively sketches the outlines of a narcocultura-fueled dance between new age drug lord El Chayo (Carlton Ward) and an FBI-trained assassin known as El Sicario (David Hale) who sketches his way through rehab and regret.
At the center of it all is La Santa Muerte (Audrey Ellis) and the human form she takes before crossing the doorway to death incarnate. In her dual manifestations, the men dance with her, toss her, drug her, wrestle with her, embrace her, play cards with her, attempt to seduce her, put her on a pedestal, and strangle her. It is a potent reminder of the many injustices that women, in particular, have suffered at the hands of men playing God in the course of Mexico’s drug war.
Costume designer Oana Botez-Ban puts La Santa Muerte in a diaphanous red dress with gold lace embellished overlay, a sequined mantilla, and a sculpted death mask that would thrill any Dia de los Muertos enthusiast. El Chayo sports bare feet with a three-piece western cut suit in white and a sculpted moustache, calling to mind a gunslinger on a coastal holiday. El Sicario’s casual federal blues speak of a government man working undercover. I must also pay special attention to the meticulous Lotería-inspired pieces of body art by tattoo artist Kati Vaughn featured in the production. At one point, El Chayo dons only a pair of briefs to reveal a stunning piece of Mexican folk art on his back depicting death and an hourglass running down his leg, reminding us that the meter is always running.
Paul Douglas Olmer’s set of stark minimalism suggests the landscape of Nuevo Laredo in simple brush strokes—an arch and pedestal of white stucco here, a pile of forgotten concrete blocks there. Garin Marschall’s light design burns like a hot summer day with no respite in sight. My only complaint here was that the light might be better focused on La Santa Muerte when she is on her pedestal—there were a few moments where her face seemed to be unnecessarily dark.
Nicolas Colvin’s sound design adds dissonance and texture to the action with airwave static, helicopters, birdsong, gunfire, children playing, the music of mariachis, and a father speaking to his child. Sadly, we lose many of the spoken lines in English due to high sound levels and unmiked actors. It was obvious the board operators were trying to create a perfect world where both lines and full sound could coexist. Instead, I wondered if perhaps the entire piece might be better done in Spanish for local flavor’s sake, ensuring through the projected subtitles that we wouldn’t lose the poetic lyricism of the few words offered to us. In addition to the much appreciated subtitles, Joel Marsh Garland’s video work impressively shares with the audience every bold stoke El Sicario makes as he puts his sins to paper.
The piece clocks in at about 45 minutes, and there was part of me that wished it had a greater sense of closure. Upon further examination, however, I had to concede that there is no clear answer or resolution in sight for the cartel violence that currently has the U.S./Mexican border by the throat. Faith will not repair it; guns will not cease it; blood will not stop it. At the end of the day, there is only Death presiding over Nuevo Laredo with her arms outstretched, accepting everyone who comes to her regardless of what side they happen to be upon. See her, if you dare.