From Fuente Ovejuna to Ciudad Juarez
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
December 5, 2010
Fuente Ovejuna is a landmark of world drama. One of Lope de Vega's greatest plays, and based on an actual event in 15th century Spain, it tells the story of townspeople who band together to fight oppression. They kill the local tyrant but when asked who did it—even under torture—no one will say. Rather, they shout the name of the town, exclaiming "Fuente Ovejuna did it!" Chastened by their solidarity, the magistrate pardons the townspeople and the play ends in violent triumph.
From Fuente Ovejuna to Ciudad Juarez adapts and modernizes Lope de Vega's play, moving the setting to the troubled Mexican city of Juarez. In 2010 alone, over 3,000 people were murdered there, victims of brutal gangs, drug cartels, or state-sponsored violence. Women are particularly subject to harm—thousands of women, mainly those who work for low wages in the maquiladoras (factories), have been abducted, raped, tortured, and killed, their nude bodies dumped in vacant lots and streets.
All this informs Sergio Adillo's impassioned adaptation, directed with Brechtian flair by Lucia Rodriguez Miranda in her professional debut. Women play a prominent part in the original play, but Miranda and Adillo augment this emphasis. Here, the women work in a maquiladora. They make shoes for pittance and are abused by the local druglord, Comendador. In Lope's original, the heroine, Laurencia, is threatened with abduction and rape—here that threat is brutally made real. Then, later, in a new, wordless scene set to haunting music, the women stand before their mirrors, getting ready for the day, but their bodies twinge and they re-live the rapes and beatings they have endured.
It's a powerful moment—a reminder of how many women experience violence—and a key example of how the director combines "the pedagogical with the theatrical," as she writes in the program notes. Miranda's direction uses elements of Brecht's theories as well as Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. The sparse set design allows for flexible, Brechtian staging—three benches sit in a blank white space, and the lights never fully hide the audience. The play begins with the actors milling around the stage, some talking to each other, some staring down the audience, others tapping their feet to the music of the all-female mariachi band who underscore the show, the Mariachi Flor de Toloache. Actors constantly acknowledge the audience, speaking directly to them and, in many instances, urging them to sing or chant along.
Sometimes, things get a little precious. Does Comendador really need all that awkward business and coke-snorting at the start to establish his already clear character, and does he need to re-enter through the audience, insulting the women? More often, though, there are moments of startling power, as when the benches are suddenly upturned and re-arranged to form a lectern, from which elderly Esteban addresses the town, urging them to end the violence. Or when Laurencia and her boyfriend, Frondoso, wed to a joyful burst of mariachi music, the entire audience joining in the song. Or when the townspeople sit upstage on a bench, their posture defiantly straight as they face their torturers. Most powerful and startling of all is the epilogue (which I won't disclose here)—which deviates from Lope de Vega's upbeat ending—a poignant tribute to the lost women of Ciudad Juarez.
In all, this is a provocative adaptation of a classic play. It doesn't gloss over Fuente Ovejuna's inherent contradictions (violence begets violence in a vicious circle), but it doesn't overlook the contemporary world, either. It's a revelatory interpretation, acted with passionate conviction by everyone in the cast.