The Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison this week in a Manhattan courtroom — just blocks from where the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo made her New York stage debut in the one-woman drama “The Way She Spoke.” It’s a harrowing account of violence against women in her native country, often at the hands of drug lords like Guzmán — whom she once contacted about a possible film of his life story and helped broker, she says unwittingly, that notorious Rolling Stone interview with Sean Penn.
It’s a weird twist of fate, and the 75-minute show — which opened Thursday at Off-Broadway’s Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre — has a similarly jarring split personality. On the one hand, playwright Isaac Gomez presents a docudrama cataloging despicable acts of violence against women just across the Mexican border in Juarez, Mexico, based on his own interviews with the people there.
On the other hand, that often moving, sometimes harrowing material is put into a meta framing device that is more distracting than revelatory. Del Castillo arrives on stage dripping wet, doffs her umbrella and coat and complains about the audition she just left where she was asked to play a character named Cha-Cha who was no more nuanced than her name suggests.
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She then sits down to a table reading of a play by her friend Isaac Gomez, whom she addresses offstage in breaks from the actual play. She begins haltingly, sometimes backing up to begin a passage again, but soon abandons the script to act out the dozen or so different characters, from young factory workers to grieving mothers to a convicted murderer who shows no sign of repentance. She matter-of-factly presents the sort of men, many of them police officers, who would tell a young woman in a store, deliberately dressed down in a hoodie and baggie pants: “Give us a smile or we’ll rip you to pieces like the others.”
And then, just as quickly, The Actress steps out to ask the playwright some question about grammar, or his personal connection to the story. Helpfully, there are lighting cues (by Lap Chi Chu) and projections (by Aaron Rhyme) that help us distinguish the moments — but these scene breaks don’t provide enough levity or release to serve any real dramatic purpose. And del Castillo doesn’t do enough to vocally distinguish among the many different characters, making it sometimes hard to follow the action.
There’s no doubt that “The Way She Spoke” has a compelling story to tell. Many, in fact. But we don’t stay with any one character long enough to sear their experience into our memory, nor do we learn the larger context of how this horrific situation came to be — let alone what anyone can do to stop it. The accumulation of atrocities take their toll, both on del Castillo’s onstage actress and on the audience.
Jo Bonney directs.