I’ve never claimed to be a scholar of the growing genre of stage shows adapted for virtual, livestream audiences. I have, however, experienced enough of such work to know that adapting a play as visceral as “La Ruta” is no task for those unwilling to put in work.
The latest from the University of Texas’s Department of Theater and Dance, playwright Isaac Gomez’s 2018 work takes account of real stories from families affected by the femicides in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Given the show’s unflinching subject matter, one can only imagine the challenge graduate directing student Anna Skidis Vargas felt when it became clear she’d have to pivot “La Ruta” to an online format.
Long before it was tapped for the department’s fall 2020 season, Gomez, who currently is based in Chicago, first defined his authorial voice while an undergrad at UT. The playwright grew up in El Paso, the American sister city to Ciudad Juárez.
Described as a love letter to the city’s long-suffering female population, the roots of “La Ruta” were laid when a classmate of Gomez’s told him of the systemic violence women faced just across the Rio Grande from his hometown. Long viewed as an inevitable, unspoken fact of life in the city, a variety of factors — police indifference, drug cartels, Mexico’s machismo culture, an exploitative economic system — work in tandem to continue the vicious and violent cycle.
While Gomez’s script addresses these elements, “La Ruta” aims its sights on the less visible effects of trauma. The story follows two grieving mothers as they attempt to make sense of a system that continuously reinforces the idea that as women, they were born lesser.
Gomez takes great pains to avoid the heavy-handed, didactic presentation that relies on a recitation of alarming crime statistics. Instead he bases his script on interviews with survivors and others affected by the ongoing genocide. Though the script is at times unfocused, Gomez’s writing captures life as its lived, from purposefully banal moments to the heavily emotional, and offers a rich sense of place.
The production team honors the spirit of Gomez’s work, with impressive resourcefulness. “La Ruta” keeps pace with its digital medium and then some, avoiding the stage-to-Zoom pivots that end up uncomfortably crippled by their newfound virtual format.
Most arresting is the show’s visual presentation with a versatile crumpled-paper backdrop positioned behind each actor, against which lighting director Amber Whatley remotely projected different hues reflecting story tones. Tying these visuals together was the work of projection designer John Erickson. Using a mix of the streaming app OBS and Zoom feeds fed through the software Touchdesigner, Erickson overlaid each cast member’s video window against a constantly shifting background (in one case, that backdrop is a mirror that shatters mid-scene). What’s more, Erickson’s design allows these frames to also fade in and out and even change positions on cue for dramatic effect.
Such visual control was clearly a joy for director Vargas, whose eye for purposeful blocking is on full display here. The characters often “face” one another when conversing (instead of facing the camera head-on), leaving meaningful space to turn forward and play directly to the audience in times of reflection or uncertainty. What’s more, physical interaction between the character’s display windows (e.g., a character braiding another’s hair, or actors looking up so as to simulate gazing at another performer’s video display), while not particularly novel given the number of similar virtual experiments, when executed as it is in “La Ruta,” it goes a hell of a long way to engage.
Vargas guides her cast in an effortless synchronicity that seems unaffected by their remote setting (sophomore actor Cielo Ortiz at one point managed to play off her scene partner’s video feed cutting out). In the role of Ivonne — a character upon whose relationships with others the central narrative relies — senior Vivian Gonzales lights, navigating an arc that’s frankly a thrill to follow even in what sometimes feels like a pointlessly non-linear narrative. In the central role of Yolanda, a grieving mother and the play’s emotional anchor, senior-year performer Emily Garcia’s impressive dramatic range. The scenes she shares with fellow grieving mother Marisela (played with electric characterization by senior Kathleen M. Guerrero), this duo’s contrasting responses to trauma create a moving approximation of real, community-wide helplessness.
Gomez’s surprisingly moving stage directions are read aloud by a trio of actresses portraying the women of Juárez, adding a further layer of depth. In a work designed to leave nothing to the imagination, it’s nice to be afforded the chance to fill the blanks ourselves.
Aurally tied together by the forlorn compositions by Jesse J. Sanchez and sound designer Lowell Bartholomee, the production marshals its many elements to create a powerful atmosphere, as Gomez’s script weaves the collective trauma of Ciudad Juárez’s systemic femicides into every fold of his characters’ lives.
UT’s “La Ruta” feels intentional, rather than a simple pivot to digital. The cast and production team are driven by a sense of duty to those lost and their families whose stories they’re honoring. For that, big props are owed to dramaturg extraordinaire, Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel.
While the production is no doubt a vastly different experience than what audiences might have received were it staged traditionally, UT’s “La Ruta” feels less like a plan B, and more a unique, ambitious work of theater that’s worth experiencing for its own merits.