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The Refugees

Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - June 9, 2022

The Ensemble
Photo by Kaylin Gess
As audience members take their seats at A.R.T./New York for Stephen Kaliski's The Refugees, they are invited to write a haiku inspired by the statement: "You didn't do enough." The play, presented by Adjusted Realists in association with Weber State University, structured as a Greek tragedy and borrowing characters from Aeschylus and Euripides, asks us to examine our own moral obligations to the millions of displaced people around the world. In response to the haiku-prompt, the question seems to be, can anyone ever do enough?

The play focuses on sickly Electra (Carolina Đỗ), who lives in Argos with her brother Orestes (Jonathan Nathaniel Dingle-El) and their domineering and implacable mother, Queen Clytemnestra (Rachel McPhee). There are hordes of refugees camping out at the Argive border, and they are dispossessed people from three main regions: Athens, Minoa, and Thrace.

Electra desperately wants the Argives to admit all of the refugees, but it will take a fair amount of convincing (and clever manipulation) to change her mother's mind. She conceives a plan involving Orestes and his lover Pylades (Matt Mastromatteo), in which a representative from each exiled group will plead their case. She hopes that the appeals will be enough to open the city's borders to the refugees.

Directed by Kaliski, the acting is generally strong across the board, and the company works well, both individually and as an ensemble. Additionally, the minimalist design serves the production's tragedian roots. The set (by Anita Tripathi) includes a decorated altar-like circle on the floor as one would see in a Greek amphitheatre, and features a chain link fence draped with remnants of discarded clothing. The stage's skene (or back wall) is revealed by opaque plastic tarps that serve as curtains. Kaylin Gess's lighting delineates the play's various locations effectively.

The play adroitly makes use of elements from Greek tragedy, such as a Nurse (Valerie Clayman Pye) to offer the play's prologue, a Messenger (Robert K. Benson) to provide exposition, and a Chorus (Josue Guerrero, Lily Hilden, Suzanne Lenz, Jeremiah Maestas, and Grace Zito), who poetically comment on the action and serve as the protagonist's confidante. For aficionados of ancient drama, it's a tantalizing conceit.

Alas, as a tool of social and political activism, the play lacks necessary urgency. Understandably, The Refugees as a Greek tragedy shows the universality and historical significance of the ongoing humanitarian crises. It gives us a chance to consider the issue apart from the reported caravans moving toward our own borders or the millions of homeless people in the rest of the world. And I especially I appreciate the playwright's intention to bring the global plight to the fore.

However, presenting the victims allegorically and rendering their supplications as generic pleadings and through treacly 1980s pop songs, for instance, reduces them to types rather than as flesh and blood human beings. Personally, the drama did not provoke in me a call to action (and as a professor at a community college in Queens, which has a staggeringly high number of undocumented immigrants, I am deeply committed to the topic). Without righteous anger there can be no catharsis.

In a curtain speech, one of the actors urged the audience to help make a difference by donating to a partnering organization called Women for Afghan Women (WAW). I didn't know anything about the work WAW does for the community, but the specific reference put a face to a current world problem. The single sentence made more of an impact on me (and as a fan of Greek tragedy, I am a little ashamed to admit) than the entire riff on the Oresteia.

I do hope that the play sparks conversation, action, and, yes, increased donations to worthy organizations. All is desperately needed. For what it's worth, the haiku I wrote was: Words die on the page/ Bombs fall on peaceful Ukraine/ Poems will not suffice.

The Refugees
Through June 26, 2022
Adjusted Realists in association with Weber State University
Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street at 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current performance schedule: