Juárez: A Documentary Mythology

Life on the boarder is deconstructed in Theater Mitu’s collaborative melding of history, politics, and performance.

A scene from Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, directed by Rubén Polendo, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
A scene from Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, directed by Rubén Polendo, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
(courtesy of the production)

Art, more often than not, is an outlet for subjective thought. An artist uses his creative medium to offer a concise and compelling snapshot of the world as it appears through his own personal filter of observation. Theater Mitu Artistic Director Rubén Polendo, however, confidently rejects this widely accepted archetype in Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, now in performances at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. He makes a compelling though not entirely convincing argument for art without subjectivity in this innovative performance piece, offering a not dramatized, but theatricalized exploration of his hometown of Juárez on the U.S.-Mexico border.

A collaborative company project, Juárez: A Documentary Mythology engages its actors as characterless mouthpieces for Juárez citizens whose firsthand accounts have been amassed in an extensive catalog of recorded interviews. Information without emotion becomes the clear objective throughout the piece as the performers trade off responsibilities reading facts from note cards or reciting recorded testimonies funneled to them through ear pieces. Polendo is forthright with his purpose from the start, opening the production with a series of home videos of his happy childhood in Juárez before the city was overtaken by drug cartels and gang violence. "I needed to understand what had happened to the city — what happened to my city," he narrates over the joyful images.

This endearing visual preface builds an engaging foundation for the remainder of the piece, offering a clear statement of intent for the unorthodox blend of historical documentary and stage performance. The tall task of pinpointing the source of the city's unraveling, however, overwhelms the piece in an untamed sea of facts, statistics, and personal anecdotes with no clear organization beyond its division into four marked chapters. Judging by its deconstructed set design, filled with crisscrossing wires and chords powering the cast's collection of hand-operated lights, this untamed confusion seems, in fact, to be a fundamental part of the company's unified vision for Juárez. The city's downward spiral was catalyzed in the early 1990s by a series of social and political factors that Polendo and his actors have no intention of boiling down into a clear thesis. The flood of facts thrown our way, however, rather than offering a blank canvas from which to draw our own conclusions, simply oversaturate us with stocks of disorganized information we can't possibly absorb.

The production's diverse cast of capable actors features Kayla Asbell, Denis Butkus, Inés García, Michael Littig, Justin Nestor, and Alejandro Rodriguez — though their talents are difficult to discern beneath the generically stoic manner they've been directed to assume. As conduits for the words and feelings of a broad spectrum of Juárez natives, every trace of character is cleansed from their performances — a choice better suited for theory than practice. While the performers successfully remain third-party vessels, we quickly forget how this fact enhances the piece at all, as we find ourselves far more interested in the actual audio from the Juárez interviews than their lifeless re-creations.

Melodramatic inflections are often used in place of emotion to give the piece theatrical life. Yet, as Butkus, for example, recites a story about a 43-year-old Juárez citizen, chased down by gunmen in a violent carjacking, the natural power of the tale is lost in the heavy-handed theatrical manipulation. There is a great deal of merit in Polendo's bold theatrical statement that stories are often best served when given the freedom to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, Juárez falls victim to the white noise of too many voices speaking at once.

Featured In This Story