Mortar’s bold ‘Corazón de Manzana’ brings fantasy to a gruesome reality

A girl (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) begins a fantastical (and fatal) journey in Mortar Theatre Company’s “Corazón de Manzana.” Photo credit: John W. Sisson, Jr.

Dana Lynn Formby’s highly ambitious new play, Corazón de Manzana, examines the femicide crisis in Juárez, Mexico through the lives of three mother/daughter relationships: a passionate young girl and her single working class mother in Mexico who experience the violence first hand; a working class mother and her daughter living in the U.S. who get pulled into the crisis when the daughter receives a cry for help in the form of a mutilated Barbie doll; and a middle class mother and daughter in Canada who at first seem to have the most indirect link to the story at hand, but then some surprising connective tissue emerges in the last few acts which holds the thing together.

There’s a lot going on in this play (which is being presented by Mortar Theatre Company at the DCA Theatre in downtown Chicago), and Formby approaches the central crises from many different perspectives and narrative styles. For the most part, it’s beautiful, challenging work that bravely walks a tightrope between hypnotic fantasy and harsh reality. For example, Formby juxtaposes a brutal rape scene of the young Mexican girl (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) with a fantasmical journey to a land of princesses, castles and apple trees — a land she’s seduced to by a charismatic busker in colorful clothing (Joshua Volkers, giving a standout performance). To me, these scenes are the heart of the play and hint at what a gorgeous and unsettling piece of work Formby has on her hands. These scenes are powerfully supported by Michelle Underwood and Douglas Tyler’s evocative projections (despite some obvious technical issues on opening night) and stylized choreography. I wanted more of this.

But the play keeps jumping to, frankly, less interesting stories, such as the mother and daughter in Canada, where the daughter (Katie Herbert) flirts with a boy via online chat while her overly protective mother argues with her daughter about skipping classes in school.

The American family storyline also needs some tightening. We not only have the mother/daughter relationship to get invested in, but also the mother’s sister — a women’s studies professor who makes it her mission to learn about the crisis in Juárez after her niece receives the ominous Barbie doll message. First, it’s hard for me to believe a women’s studies professor wouldn’t already know about the events in Juárez, and second, why couldn’t this story line be given to the daughter’s working class mother (played by the clear-eyed Stephanie Stroud)?

In short, I think some narrative streamlining would really make the play’s message come front and center.

Now, I get why Formby has these three stories vying for our attention: she’s showing the ripple effect this crisis has outside Mexico’s boarders — how we are all connected to events that seem worlds away from our comfortable, consumer-driven lives. That’s fine, but at times I felt this approach was getting in the way of its own story.

That said, this is one bold and important play (just wait for the gut-punching final scenes), and it’s exactly the type of work we need more of in this city. If I seem overly critical in this review, it’s just because I believe this play has the potential to make waves. I encourage you to see it and get the conversation started about this tragic and timely topic.

“Corazón de Manzana” plays through September 25 at DCA Theatre. More info here >

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