The Dueling Critics get magical about 'Corazón de Manzana'

September 9, 2011

JONATHAN: Three sets of mothers and daughters live, respectively, in the USA, Mexico and Canada in Dana Lynn Formby's Corazón de Manzana, now receiving its world premiere by Mortar Theatre Company. The three sets obviously parallel each other, but there is less connection than meets the ear in Formby's poetical drama about a political subject. The show's press release states that Corazon de Manzana (Spanish for "apple core" but literally "heart of the apple") is about the murders of thousands of women in Ciudad Juarez, a major Mexican-USA border town. However, the play mentions this topic only a couple of times, digressing into numerous other mother-daughter issues. Formby leaves it to the audience to connect the dots, which didn't connect for me.

KELLY: You're right that the show doesn't completely come together, but no press release or other background is necessary to realize that the show's focus is on the Juarez "femicides," as they've been called. The little North American girl gets a Barbie doll that's been mutilated and marked with the words "Woman Cancer," and it soon becomes clear that this is a cry for help from the women who work at the Barbie factory in Juarez.

One of these women is the mother of a child who is kidnapped as part of the continuing violence against women in the town. So the dots between Mexico and the United States seem amply connected to me.  

The Canadian mother-daughter pair, though, seems to exist only to highlight the role of the North American Free Trade Agreement (to which all three nations are signatories) in the Juarez disaster. There's only one sentence in the Canadian thread that really struck me, and struck me as related to the overall theme of the play: when the Canadian daughter, who's received a heart transplant, talks about "owing your entire life to someone else's death and suffering." That's clearly intended to be a noodge to the US citizens in the audience who owe their cheap Barbie dolls to the death and suffering of Mexicans.

JONATHAN: Well, the problem is that what "soon becomes clear" for you, Kelly, never became clear for me.

What's going on at the factories in Juarez--nor why it's bad--is never spelled out. We never are told WHY thousands of women are being killed, with only the vaguest hint that, maybe, women are being killed because they'll work for less than men. NAFTA is brought up precisely twice and the connection between it and femicide never is made.

Mazi, the little Mexican girl who perhaps is kidnapped, isn't kidnapped in the play: her doll comes to life and introduces her to an engaging but sinister fantasy figure who leads Mazi to a fairytale world. If Mazi is snatched, she's gotta' be snatched! Even more, the extremely late revelation that Sara, the Canadian daughter, received a new heart is linked to the suggestion that she received Mazi's heart, darkly hinting at a Mexican blackmarket organ ring.

Hey, too many targets and too disorganized for me. A political play needs to be specific and punchy, not poetical and fanciful.

KELLY: Am I not always the one objecting to magic realism--"poetical and fanciful," as you put it? Yet here it serves the function of helping the political message seem less didactic and thus more palatable. We don't need to see a young girl being violated to realize that it's occurring, and the nature of the violation doesn't seem important, either--whether she was raped and then killed or just raped or just killed or killed for her organs. What's important is that we see the connection between her suffering and our comfort--that the personal (to coin a phrase) is political.

JONATHAN: Yes, Kelly, you despise magic realism. Too bad you don't know what it is. This play is poetic realism, not magic realism. There are no other "magic" scenes or treatment of characters except the fantasy sequence that represents, apparently, something bad happening to Mazi. But WHY is something bad happening to this little girl?  Whatever happens to Mazi is arbitrary and not because of anything she or her mother have done. And why should I care about Mazi, other than the fact that she's an innocent kid? Formby gives Mazi no significant actions or personality.

In terms of character and actions, the two other girls are far more developed. No, Kelly, this play is a patchwork quilt in which I cannot discern the pattern. You're making all sorts of connections that aren't there because you're a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart, University of Chicago lefty liberal, and if the Tea Party ever actually wins (God forbid) you're certain to be on their list.

For all my huffing and puffing, I need to add that my difficulties with this work are NOT with the production itself. Formby and director Jason Boat have used visual tools very nicely (video, choreography, lighting), and I have no complaints about the performers. Formby's earnestness and passion are apparent, but they are not enough for a political subject if she cannot convey information and story to us with force and clarity.

Corazón de Manzana, presented by Mortar Theatre Company, continues at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, through Sept. 25.