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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Refugia
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Red Velvet and Kit's review of Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery


Rendah Heywood, Orlando Pabotoy,
Kendra 'Vie Boheme" Dennard, Steven Epp,
Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin

Photo by Dan Norman
The Moving Company is a high-powered theatrical collective comprising veterans of the fabled and much-missed Theatre de la Jeune Lune, including Christina Baldwin, Steven Epps Nathan Keepers, and Dominique Serrand. The impulse to create a show about the movement of people, under duress, across borders came to them with news of 300,000 Syrian refugees entering Turkey. Refugia is the result of that impulse, being premiered on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie. The company-devised theater work depicts movement of individuals, pairs and groups across a range of boundaries under varied circumstances- as well as the response of those who stand as sentries over those boundaries. It is an aspect of human existence that is as timely as today's breaking news and as eternal as Adam and Eve's traverse of the border out of Eden.

Refugia is a compilation of nine narrative segments, some of which stand alone, while others are inter-related. Several of these are compelling works in their own right, but others fail to strike their target, or even give a clear notion of what the target is. There is no connective tissue to tie the segments together, and as a result the whole is less than the sum of the parts. This is a shame, for the topic is certainly worthy of our attention, a great deal of creative energy has clearly been invested in the work, and the ensemble is composed of highly talented actors.

The set designed by Riccardo Hern├índez is visible upon entering the McGuire. It is a vast, stark space lined left and rear with steel panels—which glide and pivot to allow actors and stage furniture to enter and exit fluidly—while along the right edge of the stage are a few rooms of different sizes, constructed of rough unpainted sheets of plywood, which, when pushed out become offices for guards and other personnel in several of the segments. The entire stage is canopied by a peaked framework of joists and girders that form a ceiling over the set. The effect of the set is chilly, bordering on brutal, conveying contempt for man-made environments.

The play begins unceremoniously as actor Steve Pep, dressed in a wrinkled, oversized suit walks on stage with the house lights still on, and begins to converse with the audience. What starts off as lucid, though banal, chatter becomes increasingly vague as the house lights dim and we realize the man Epps is portraying knows less and less who or where he is. Suddenly he is being processed for admission to a hospital, in which his condition quickly deteriorates until he becomes the guest of honor in a macabre going away party. The border he crosses is not between nations, but between this life and whatever comes next. This is certainly the most basic truth of the human condition, but it is not crossing a border in search of refuge. How does this relate to the theme of Refugia?

The next segment takes place at a border crossing between Mexico and the southwestern United States. A child has appeared before the wire fence on the Mexican side, carrying a handwritten sign that says "Help." But the scene is not really about the child, it is about the cluelessness of the various officers at the border crossing who are dressed in fat suits, engage in crude body posture as if facilitating the passing of gas, and repeat the same inane remarks over and over. Another segment deals with a Polish couple—he a composer, she a singer—trying to leave the USSR in the 1950s to immigrate to Israel. They are questioned mercilessly by a border official who believes that he is a nuclear scientist leaving with top secret information, as their belongings are searched and strewn on the ground.

The second act begins with a polar bear—props to the creators of that costume—who has migrated to the equator (the time is identified as "sooner or later") and seems to be withering. A dancer (Kendra "Vie Boheme" Dennard) appears and gracefully provides solace to the bruin. On one side of the stage a person in a white hazmat suit silently watches. It is easy to identify this as a statement on climate change. In fact, climate change already is causing refugee movement, and more is likely in the coming decades. But the polar bear feels like a trite symbolic nod to the plight of those impacted communities.

Refugia's strongest segments are four interconnected scenes, spread over the first and second act, that do address the turmoil of movement both in and out of Syria. The first presents a middle-class, middle-aged couple at home in Marseilles, France. They are well-assimilated immigrants from Algeria who fear that their missing son has gone to Syria to join the radical Islamists. In a later scene, a group of Syrian women and children make a harrowing journey to flee their ravaged homeland. We next return to the father, now in Syria: he has found his son, who is disillusioned with the radicals, even as he decries the emptiness of his life in France. Finally, father, son and the women board the same small boat, bravely crossing the Mediterranean to a Greek island, their first step toward refuge. A sequence of the travelers moving as a huddled mass on board their boat is especially gripping.

The final segment begins with a man—who looks and sound exactly like the man we met at the opening, again played by Steven Pep—coming to a library to "learn about his people." This venture involves the entire cast as an array of peculiar people, a fall down a hole and through a tunnel, and the discovery that if one goes back far enough, all people are "our people." The scene involves a good deal of physical humor that might be entertaining if it illuminated the message of the piece. Instead, it feels like fill, offering nothing but a chance for the cast and director Dominque Serrand to demonstrate their excellent comic timing, but it becomes tedious and its message is lost.

The cast cannot be faulted. They all perform well, with Rendah Heywood, Orlando Pabotoy, and Jamal Abdunnasir especially compelling as the French-Algerian mother, father and son, respectively. Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin are impressive as the couple trying to leave the USSR, while Steven Pep is imposing as their interrogator. But there is no opportunity for character development, no real meat for the actors to sink their teeth into.

Serrand's direction is at its best when creating stage images and handling the split-second timing both between and within the segments. However, he is no more able than the actors to draw a coherent meaning from this assemblage of interesting parts. Sonya M. Berlovitz has designed costumes that range from appropriately drab (the Russian emigres) to wildly inventive (the characters in the final segment), and Marcus Dilliard's lighting provides suitable variations of grim atmosphere.

In the end, the trio given credit for writing Refugia—actors Steven Pep and Nathan Keepers, and director Dominque Serrand, working with the full company as the show was "devised"—have acted on a laudable impulse and created some intriguing scenes, punctuated by clever stage business, but only a few moments that connect to the human phenomena of seeking refuge. There is tremendous ambition and invention on view, but it is not yet a coherent program able to illuminate its theme.

Refugia continues through June 11, 2017, at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets: $34.00 - $67.00. Student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats may be available starting 30 minutes before performances, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Developed by: The Moving Company; Written by: Steven Pep, Nathan Keepers and Dominque Serrand; Director: Dominque Serrand; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design: Sonya M. Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Projection Design: Shawn Duan; Sound Design: Scott W. Edward; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse: Vocal Coach: Mira K. Kehoe; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Stage Manager: Michele Hossle; Assistant Director: Laura Leffler; Design Assistants: Alice Fredrickson (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), and Reid Rejsa (sound).

Acting Ensemble: Jamal Abdunnasir, Christina Baldwin, Kendra "Vie Boheme" Dennard, Steven Pep, Maia Hernandez *, Rendah Heywood, Nathan Keepers, Orlando Pabotoy, Carolina Sierra *.

* Alternating performances.


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