According to Aristotle, the aim of tragedy was to evoke pity and fear by watching a noble character have his life torn apart through a series of tragic incidents, fueled by character flaws; on the other hand, Migdalia Cruz's play El Grito Del Bronx (a New York University mainstage production) places a serial killer at the crux of the tragic formula. But by joining the story of a killer with the story of his sister, by pairing his cruelty with his tender love, and by showing the roots of his past, this story manages to evoke pity, fear, and even humor.
The play begins by splitting the story between Jesus and his sister Magdalena into two sections, one taking place in 1977 and the other taking place in 1991. In 1977, Jesus (Anthony Souza) and his sister Magdalena (Monserrat Barrera) watch their mother Maria (Nicole Ramos) being abused by their father Jose (Norberto Briceno). In 1991, Jesus is now named Papo (Ismael Enrique Cruz Cordova) and is in prison for a string of murders. Meanwhile, Magdalena, now called Lulu (Audrey Esparza) is attempting to move on with her life with her fiance Ed (Alex Fast).
This production arrives to existence from last spring's Hot Ink Festival, which stages readings of new plays from across the globe. The school was right to recognize the potential of Cruz's work, although it might have been profited by pushing Cruz to rewrite some of the earlier scenes. One of Cruz's talents is an ability to shift from tragedy (of which there is much in this play) to humor and back in short spans of time. Usually this is effective, both in preventing a dreary march of constant sadness and in humanizing characters who without these moments of humor would be unsympathetic, but in the beginning of the play this shift happens often too rapidly, lurching from humor to abuse without giving the audience time to adjust. The early part of the play also has other problems in the way it is produced; director Candido Tirado chooses to portray a rape onstage, but it seems shoehorned into the moment, and is not properly dealt with.
But the production is overall powerful and touching. One of the most striking, successful elements is the set design provided by Andy Yanni. Eschewing the usual floorplan of the Loewe Theater which this Mainstage took place in, Yanni chose to create a long, narrow set which heightened the tensions and created distinct separations between the 1977 plot on one side and the 1991 plot in the middle and the other side. The prison which Papo is serving his sentence is especially effective; it is a long and thin set which rotates to change the diagonal of the space.
By far the most effective element of the production was the high caliber of performance from most of the cast. Although Audrey Esparza's Lulu was somewhat histrionic and at times tiring, Ismael Cordova's Papo was a stunning and gut-wrenching performance. It is difficult to encapsulate both violence and tender love; Cordova's Papo had not only both but even managed to eerily demonstrate them at the same time. Papo's cellmate, played by Josh Segarra, was a fantastic addition to the production. His stage presence was imposing and his gentleness and strength was a fantastic complement to Papo. The three mothers in the production, played by Stacy Osei-Kuffor, Morgan Lynch, and Nicole Ramos each brought a very different pathos to the production, whether it was Osei-Kuffor's haunting lack of comprehension in the face of tragedy, Lynch's sad humor, or Ramos' all-forgiving love.
There were many "hot-button" issues throughout El Grito Del Bronx; spousal abuse and its effect on its victims, the criminal justice system, and racial relations between the latino community and its neighbors. El Grito Del Bronx did not treat them as subjects to be expounded on, but rather as facts of life which establish a backdrop of the deeply personal life of a single family. The only statement on politics which El Grito Del Bronx seemed to state unequivocally was that all of politics comes down to human lives, that all of these issues are mixed in a deeply woven tapestry of emotion. And although the characters have a wide pantheon of groups to blame, whether justly or unjustly, the most tragic thing about El Grito Del Bronx is that in the end, there is no one to unload blame on or to completely absolve.