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Based On True Events

March 19, 2008

Using a sensational kidnapping case as its source material, June in a Box recalls events we'd just as soon forget.

The famous philosophical question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?," is at the heart of June in a Box, Octavio Solis' new play, currently receiving its world premiere under the auspices of Intersection for the Arts' resident theater company, Campo Santo. In a production directed by Solis, June retells the story of one of the strangest and most brutal kidnappings of the 20th century.

June Robles, the 6-year-old granddaughter of a wealthy Arizona businessman, was abducted from the sidewalk on her way home from school on April 25, 1934. Her kidnappers sent her father a ransom note demanding $15,000. After days of fruitless searching, a mysterious tip-off from Chicago led police to an isolated corner of the desert east of Tucson where they found the little girl weak, disoriented, and filthy. At the time of her rescue, she had apparently survived for 19 days buried alive in a metal cage with one of her ankles chained to a spike in the ground. Despite attracting international media attention, the high-profile investigation following June's safe return to her family yielded disappointing results. No ransom money changed hands, and nobody was ever charged with the crime. In December 1936, a federal grand jury walked away from the unresolved case. Lacking evidence to indict anyone and deciding that a 6-year-old couldn't possibly have spent 19 days underground and lived to tell the tale, jurors labeled Robles' baffling disappearance an "alleged kidnapping." The court effectively treated the case as if it had never happened, and it eventually slipped from the headlines.

Close to three-quarters of a century later, Solis resurrects the tale of this long-forgotten crime to create a subtle meditation on the impact of passing time on events and the human impulse to suppress painful memories. Part living newspaper-style play and part musical fable, June reimagines the story of the kidnapping as the victim might tell it decades later in her old age. Laced with touches of magical realism, mythology, and composer Beth Custer's original songs, the production foregrounds the surreal over the real, ultimately distancing us from the historical facts surrounding June's abduction. The remoteness we feel from the events of 1934 and their subsequent fallout teaches us an interesting lesson in how the collective imagination processes and ultimately discards information. But this shadowy slip of a play ultimately exists beyond our reach and, like the historical events it seeks to represent, evaporates to the point where it seems almost forgettable.

Throughout the production (which I saw in preview the evening before the official opening night), newspaper headlines and photographs projected on the wall to the right of the performance space serve as a constant reminder of the real-life events underpinning the drama. Solis' unembellished language and seemingly simple, quasipedagogical approach to storytelling serves a similar purpose. Characters' lines frequently come across like they're giving evidence in court. At times, the play seems almost instructional, like a case study for law students.

Yet a fluid sense of theatricality serves to undermine the facts or at least draw attention to their supernatural quality. The production's quirky soundscape casts an ethereal shadow on empirical fact throughout the show. Sonorous-sparkly bass clarinet and accordion duets performed by Custer and Isabel Douglass conjure a make-believe world of circuses and fairgrounds. Oddball plinks and plunks from a player piano to the side of the stage coupled with intermittent rattles and scrapes from various percussion instruments add an extra ghostly dimension. The striding, minor tonality of the repeatedly sung refrain "Where is June? Where the hell is June?" possesses the quality of the type of tune that once accompanied old-fashioned detective mystery shows on television. Meanwhile, the cast's performance of "El Corrida de la Niña June Robles," a 1934 Spanish-language ballad recounting the kidnapping, lifts June's story to mythical status.

The characterizations and performances further serve to muddy the line between historical fact and legend. Tossed between the playwright's precocious, sweet-voiced daughter, 13-year-old Gracie Solis, and the luminous Los Angeles–based veteran actor Denise Blasor, the character of June morphs freely between her young and old self. Similarly, the shaggy-looking performers Marc David Pinate and Luís Saguar prowl between playing June's kidnappers and a couple of shifty, howling coyotes – the seminal trickster figures of Native American lore. Ensemble members also take on smaller roles as June's relatives and police investigators throughout the show. As June's identically dressed two selves converse with each other, one sitting atop the big, gauze-fronted wooden box at the front of the stage, the other curled up inside the subterranean prison, we wonder whether the plot could be unfolding entirely inside the failing mind of a woman in her twilight years. Indeed, at one point toward the end of the play, old June has to tell three different versions of what happened to her in the years following her ordeal before other members of the ensemble will accept her story. Upon closer analysis, the box sitting center stage doesn't simply represent the coffin in which June was buried. It stands for the human brain's habit of burying painful memories, locking them tight, and only very belatedly — if ever — allowing them to see the light of day. June ultimately never escapes her box. In the words of old June, she is "always in mi caja waiting for the coyotes to come."

Like The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, Solis' last collaboration with Custer at Intersection for the Arts, June exploits the blurred line between fact and fiction. Featuring memorable songs, careening comedy, and rich layers of metaphor, June struggles to compete with Ballad's momentum and wit. The subdued, internalized quality of June ultimately creates an ironic effect on the audience. The gulf Solis constructs between historical events and the transformative power of legend demonstrates the crucial roles played by art and the imagination in making world events resonate with us long after they've been brushed aside. But our inability to truly connect with the action in a visceral way makes me wonder how long the production will stay in my mind. Solis even goes as far as to "refute" the newspaper headlines in his one short program note, an official-sounding legal disclaimer describing the play "a work of fiction ... not intended to depict true historical events. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." This seemingly tongue-in-cheek statement plays clever games with already-confused notions about the existence of empirical truth, but it's also highly alienating. Like a tree falling in a faraway forest, the evening I spent in the company of Solis, Custer, and their compadres may soon vanish into some dark corner of my memory to the point where I wonder if I experienced the production at all.



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