Review: In "Mercado Libre," the Invisible Hand is Also a Fist

Mercado Libre

Written by Luis Araújo

Directed by Ismanuel Rodriguez

Presented by Boundless Theatre Company at Julia de Burgos Performance and Arts Center

1680 Lexington Ave., Manhattan, NYC

June 2-12, 2022

Photo courtesy Lalaboy PR
At different moments in the opening scene of Spanish playwright Luis Araújo's Mercado Libre (Free Market), a woman, B (Diana Pou) identifies the man, A (Gerardo E. Gudiño), with whom she has just had a sexual encounter in exchange for payment, as a gentleman and as a beast. These identities and the relationship between them will have gained additional vectors of meaning by the time that A brings up the beast again–this time in relation to prey–much later in the play. Simultaneously a story of a wealthy beast and a beastly system of wealth, Mercado Libre, which debuted in Spain and has been produced in Puerto Rico as well, makes its New York premiere (performed in Spanish with English supertitles) in a riveting production from Boundless Theatre Company.

A is a well-heeled lawyer who defends corporations, and B is an undocumented sex worker. A wants more of B's company, wants, in fact, for her to belong to him, and he is willing and, more importantly, able to pay for what anyone else agrees, under whatever degree of coercion, to sell. A offers to buy B clothes, to change her life, and so on; but this is no Pretty Woman, not even Beauty and the metaphorical Beast, and B is no benign moneyed male rescuer of patriarchal capitalist fantasy. A asks for more and more, offering of course to keep the money coming, and when, after a rift, B feels forced to once again negotiate her sale to B, this time in return for help with a savagely ironic problem that has arisen, it plays as pure tragedy.

Mercado Libre works at the same time as a compelling psychosexual drama and an allegory of life under capitalism. As A expresses his desire for B to belong to him in that opening scene and makes an appointment to see her again the next day, his demands for more–some of the first but far from the last times he asks for, as he puts it at least once, just a little bit more–not only reflect on A as a person but also position him as an avatar of a capitalist system that insists on endless accumulation. Scholars have described how capitalism's regulation extends beyond the economic to social relations, applying the exploitative, destructive logic of the market wherever possible. A argues that true freedom allows one to indulge any whim, and that freedom is expensive. Even criminal legal penalties, he says, are merely items on a list of the prices attached to certain actions. Some of what A requests in the play is not, let's say, vanilla, and such desires can be linked to his belief that pain enables mastery and authenticity. B's increasingly bloodied body registers the effects of that belief, concurrently mirroring the extractive exploitation of the worker's body under capitalism.

Photo courtesy Lalaboy PR
As a woman, B faces additional exploitation. The relations between A and B are clearly marketized, but as theorists Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi have argued, capitalism actually produces patriarchal gender difference. Within this system, B may sell, or have no choice but to sell, her body and its vitality, but she will never negotiate that sale from a position equal to that of A, a hierarchy encoded even in the character's non-names. Further, it is her gendered role in (social) reproduction–which is, like freedom, expensive–that drives her back to A for assistance. B's motivations for this request would seem to undercut A's assertion, with which B disagrees, that there would be no care without payment. And when she refuses to sell him what he wants, he is at her mercy, inverting the power dynamics between them and suggesting that not everything yet falls within the market–but cannot A then instead take what he wants and afford to pay or avoid the penalties? If B is in a (paid) abusive relationship with A–who, like any "good" abuser, repeatedly declares his love for her yet also blames her for "everything"--so are we all in that relationship with capitalism.

Boundless Theatre Company describes itself as a "designer-led organization," so perhaps it should be no surprise that the set, lighting, and sound design all impress. The set funnels the eye towards the bed where A and B begin the play, framing it (and them) almost like a window display, a fitting evocation for a play concerned with buying and selling. In the latter portion of the production, the staging becomes more surreal, with some scenes suffused in red light, the inner state of the characters perhaps bleeding out into their environs. Pou and Gudiño both conjure fierce, ferociously committed performances that cause the production's tautly directed 75-minutes to fly by. The so-called free market may not be so great, but Mercado Libre is fantastic.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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