Theater

E Pluribus, Pluribus: A Theater Festival That Would Benefit From Unity

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The Theater:Village festival, now in its
second year
, makes a rare attempt at common cause among this city’s many small companies. For that effort alone, the program deserves a closer look; New York boasts thousands of creative theatermakers, but an
impoverished (and sometimes unimaginative) culture infrastructure seldom allows curatorial efforts that would let audiences discover connections between projects. Seeing productions in relation to one another can be a great way to illuminate the artists’ achievements and strengthen our engagement.

The festival’s 2014 iteration, titled “E Pluribus,”
runs through October 5 and focuses on questions about America’s diversity writ large. Four theaters (Rattlestick, New Ohio, Cherry Lane, and Axis) have each produced one show for the series. Diversity is a broad concept, of course, and Theater:Village would be more rewarding to experience if the producers could be more exacting — if the “diversity” investigated is ethnic, for instance, why not say so? The organizers should also consider adding dimensions beyond the shows themselves: Why not a program booklet or website reflecting on these projects and their ostensible theme? Or how about public programs inviting activists and scholars to consider the work on display? A little curation would bolster this very good idea for a series into something larger than a cooperative marketing concept.

There’s plenty to talk about in Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, an effective documentary performance created by Theater Mitu’s members from a series of interviews in and around the border-town tandem of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas. The project’s
inventive director, Rubén Polendo, hails from Juárez,
a Mexican city once fluid with traditional family life, which transformed in the wake of NAFTA and the arrival of maquiladora factories. As single young women flocked to town in search of work, violent crime followed. Battling drug cartels turned the besieged region into a war zone, with decapitated bodies and kidnappings terrifying residents until a change in political leadership brought provisional relief.

The creator-performers consist entirely of non-Mexican Americans, and Polendo wisely stresses the intertwined identities of El Paso and Juárez. The sister cities’ mirroring makes a neat parallel with the U.S.
actors’ speaking of personal testimonials from residents. (The company could have gone further in investigating its own place in the scheme: their bodies, their nation’s policies.)

Often, Polendo lets us hear the interviewees before their recorded words are performed. With audiovisual distancing devices and calculating choreography, he calls attention to the performance act rather than pretending — as documentary theater so often does — no mediation has taken place. We end up with an often moving witnessing of lives and landscapes altered by turmoil.
Polendo calls the project an “emotional archive” in
his program note, and his term couldn’t be more apt.

Over at Axis Theater, another sort of elegy takes place in Solitary Light, a musical tribute to the
immigrant laborers who perished in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — just blocks away from the
theater. The cast stands in various pageant formations to sing Randy Sharp’s effluent music (supported by a string-heavy quartet). There’s little vigor in this relentlessly virtuous presentation, but the memorial gesture is well intentioned. Thinking about the violent fate of these seamstresses — nearly a century before Juárez’s migrant women started getting murdered — made the two pieces fuller and richer, and left me curious to see how the festival’s other works might extend the experience.

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