Monday, May 22, 2017

Wrestling with the Moving Company's Refugia at the Guthrie

This world premiere play left me with more to think about than usual. 


Photo by Dan Norman

I immediately marked Refugia on my "must-see" list when it was announced last year. I've been following the current migration and refugee crises swallowing the world whole with great interest over the last few years, and I was so excited to finally see a piece from a major theater that would address it head on. The fact that it was being staged by the recently renewed the Moving Company was just icing on the multi-layered cake.

But when I left the theater last Friday after finally seeing Refugia, I found myself with more questions than answers and facing a review that I don't really know how to write.

Photo by Dan Norman

Let's start with what I can absolutely verify: the Moving Company is made up of some spectacularly talented artists, and they act the hell out of their roles here. The set is innovative and evocative, and offered a surprising amount of flexibility for what looked at face value like such a static structure. The costumes are perfectly tailored and beautifully appointed, and each character is exactly represented as you might imagine them off the page. Attention is paid to every tiny detail, down to exquisitely placed props and a live soundtrack (mostly provided by Christina Baldwin) that will make your heart stop.

Photo by Dan Norman

But I think the success of all these small details is what leaves the audience of Refugia in such a confusion, because at the heart of this show aren't really refugees at all, as one might suppose. The play opens and ends with an elderly white man walking in a Rainman-esque trance and babbling about his human family, long life, the vagaries of senior homes, and more, none of which is directly related to the more searing vignettes contained throughout the middle of the play. A dance with a polar bear may be intended to evoke some sort of animistic refugee crisis (climate change??) but left me more confused than content. The first true refugee story, about a young girl left at the Mexican border in Arizona as she is being "processed," has some hilarious caricatures of governmental staff at the border. However, the laughter created by these caricatures cruelly ignores the girl, the abuse she faces by these adults who treat her with such contempt, and never truly atones for itself. I found it extremely uncomfortable to watch while laughter boiled around me, unable to think of anything but a 10 year old girl stuffed in a trash can straight in front of my eyes, as forgotten on stage as her real life counterparts seem to be.

Photo by Dan Norman

That's not to say Refugia is wholly without nuance or benefit. I did appreciate an extended storyline discussing the critical issue of European citizens who are leaving to the Middle East to join Daish, and the effects that that selfish betrayal has on families back home. The pain parents suffer when their children abandon the generations of work they have put in to survive is extraordinary and often overlooked, I think, and that narrative is beautifully displayed through several moving interactions. A group of female Muslim refugees silently and stoically pray while planes fly overhead, and their quiet strength is an inspiring thing to see. And a gorgeous piece about Polish Jews fleeing Russia in the 1950s has some beautiful things to say about the place of art in such painful moments and the benefits of starting completely from scratch.

Photo by Dan Norman

As mentioned before, the cast is incredibly talented and really lights up each sketch. Christina Baldwin anchors the action, of course, with her lovely voice and ability to vanish into her characters. Baldwin is a master actress, and even when the action on stage is unsettling, it's hard to take your eyes off her. Nathan Keepers is hilarious as a wayward librarian at the end of the show, the only truly comedic part of Refugia. Orlando Pabotoy is heartbreaking as a father seeking his corrupted son, and his scenes of loss are some of the most moving of the show. Steven Epp is reminiscent of 1980s Dustin Hoffmann in his meandering monologues, and he really loses himself in his part.

Photo by Dan Norman

So, at the end of the day, should you go see Refugia? I honestly don't know. I can't deny that in it's individual elements, Refugia is a beautifully crafted piece of drama. On the other hand, I have some very strong reservations about the script itself. I may believe that the authors intended this well (and I really do believe it), but somewhere in all the madness the point of the story - of refugees, of those who are suffering, of those who are forgotten and overlooked, of those to whom it is far too easy to turn a cold shoulder - is utterly lost. Some moments are downright uncomfortable, and not in a purposeful way that generates necessary, productive self-reflection. I think (if you dig) there is something good to be found here, and I think this company could develop it further into a truly transcendent piece, but I'm not confident enough in Refugia's current iteration to endorse it wholeheartedly as-is. Do you agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. For more information about Refugia, click on this link.