Crawling with Monsters
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 20, 2011
A cast of young adults, dressed as monsters in face paint and pigtails, crawl across the floor and up into the audience in an acting exercise. Their director and teacher presides from upstage, calling out direction, reminding them that this is for real. We find out just how real it gets in Crawling with Monsters, a multimedia documentary piece now showing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Like many first documentaries, it is a little rough around the edges but for what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart.
The Sleepy Border Town Insomniacs—formed as a touring troupe based out of Edinburg, Texas to provide bilingual children’s theatre to the borderland masses—adopts a very different mission when their tour to the nearby Mexican town of Reynosa is cancelled. The U.S. government issues a travel advisory due to the area’s escalating cartel violence, and the troupe’s director comes up with the idea of creating a documentary performance piece about how the cartel violence is affecting kids in the community. Still under the guise of a theatre company doing a play for children about monsters, the 17 theatre artists involved—all students or recent University of Texas-Pan American graduates—begin to work covertly on their new project by interviewing children, teachers and family members.
The process is slow. Many people approached to be interviewed will not speak out of fear; others will only speak on the condition of anonymity. The media proves to be of little assistance: local journalists are being targeted by the cartels and rarely report on the situation. Some are being paid off, not unlike many of the local police officers on both sides of the border. The company members, most of whom still have family members living in northern Mexico, begin to realize that they and their families are now also in peril as they risk much to make the story of the border community heard. As a result, they, too, speak here on the condition of anonymity.
The interviews range from concerns about safety to the retelling of being kidnapped and tortured, and are reenacted in monologue form, sometimes in Spanish with English translations projected upon a screen. Through the aid of video, we are treated to borderland landscapes and get to see the set and costume renderings for the original children’s production. We are offered quotes and statistics from U.S. media outlets on the drug war. We witness how social media is utilized by the locals to pass along information about road conditions and ambushes. We see gun battles in progress. It is all very sobering, but none of it really sinks in until we’re shown photos of local children practicing drills at school in the event gunfire breaks out.
The performers are very close to this situation; perhaps even too close. The director seemed a bit like she was reciting lines up until a monologue where she confides that she is worried about the safety of her cast and her own family. In another place, she went on for a little too long about the guilt associated with being an artist creating something out of the fear of others.
The piece clocks in at about an hour and a half, and I checked my watch at the hour point. I noticed in the program afterwards that the cast decided to tack 30 minutes onto the piece for the festival. In the interest of keeping the material as tight as possible and not rehashing points already made, it might do the work a greater service by keeping it at about an hour. I also encourage the group to consider incorporating more interviews about happier times, perhaps even before the violence became so prevalent. In addition to giving the audience a bit of a break, it might provide for a greater opportunity to connect to what has been lost.
I am sad that I cannot recognize members of this cast by name for their honest performances, including the two fantastic acoustic mariachis whose rendition of “Malaguena Salerosa” sent my mind off into a reverie of the Chihuahuan Desert. Full disclosure: I grew up on the border. To some, the anonymity of the people involved in the making of this production may seem a gimmick. Through my own experiences in the region, I know it is necessary. Crawling with Monsters proves that theatre continues to be a vehicle for social and political change. I commend the Insomniacs for their courage and effort.