Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation ProceedingsJungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent review of Our Town

Megan Kim, Stephanie Anne Bertumen,
and Jay Owen Eisenberg

Photo by Lauren B Photography
A great deal of attention has been drawn to the plight of immigrants in the world today, with vast numbers seeking refuge or asylum from wars, natural disaster, gender-based torture, violent gangs, economic collapse, and other calamities. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, by the end of 2020 there were 82.4 million displaced people in the world, the highest number ever recorded. Though the United States is not the leading recipient of refugees (the top five host nations that year were Turkey, Colombia, Germany, Pakistan and Uganda), we are most acutely aware of the large numbers striving to enter our nation, especially across our southern border.

While the circumstance cited above is harrowing, even more "normal" immigrant experiences can be subject to grueling hardships challenges that threaten the lives of new arrivals and their families. The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings documents one such case. It is constructed from verbatim transcripts of two court proceedings, the first in a Federal District Court in Chicago, followed by the second, in the United States Court of Appeals, along with a final scene, also based on existing text, that wraps up this story. Actor, writer and director Arian Moayed is credited with "arranging" these transcripts. Jungle Theater is presenting The Courtroom, with its first two weeks of performances mounted in a courtroom created for mock trials at the Hamline University School of Law. For the subsequent three weeks, the play will be staged at the Jungle Theater, with a set designed to approximate the feel of a courthouse chamber.

On May, 2004, after a prolonged courtship carried out by letters, email, and one previous visit, John Keathley flew from his home in Illinois to the Philippines and married a Filipina woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth flew back to Illinois with John on a K-3 visa, which permits entry of an alien fiancé or spouse of a United States citizen, with the prospect of being reclassified to a more permanent resident status at a later time. Living with them was John's daughter from his first marriage. A year later, John and Elizabeth had a child of their own, Sheena. Both John and Elizabeth had steady jobs. They formed a close-knit, loving and well-functioning family.

A few months after she arrived, Elizabeth went to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles office for a driving learners permit and a state identification card. As related by Elizabeth, the clerk raced through the form, including options such as whether she wants to be an organ donor and if she wants to vote. Elizabeth said yes to everything, then signed the document as directed by the clerk. A short time later, she received a voter registration card in the mail. Of course, not being a citizen, she was still ineligible to vote, but Elizabeth did not understand that. She assumed that since an officer of a state agency asked her if she wanted to vote, followed by a voter registration card arriving in the mail, she had been officially deemed a voter. When, two years later, she voted in the Congressional election, she unknowingly broke a federal law. This offense deemed her ineligible for an elevated immigration status that would allow her to remain permanently in the country, as well as the prospect of citizenship. She could be deported, torn away from her husband, baby, and stepdaughter she was raising as her own.

Before the hearing begins, we witness a back-and-forth discussion about whether or not an interpreter should be provided. Elizabeth's attorney, Richard Hanus, wants his client to have one–yes, she speaks English, but not with great fluency, and the legal terminology is complicated. However, while Judge Craig Zerbe is confident an interpreter for Tagalog (the language spoken in the Philippines) would be available, Elizabeth speaks Visayan, a specific dialect of Tagalog that most Tagalog speakers are unfamiliar with, and therefore she declines. This is just one of many examples of the complications of the judicial process and the barriers an immigrant faces in navigating that process.

Hanus argues a little-used defense called "entrapment by estoppel." It claims that a defendant cannot be found guilty if their wrongdoing is the result of erroneous coaching by a government official. Hanus calls both Elizabeth and John as witnesses and makes a compelling case. The Department of Homeland Security attorney makes an equally compelling case, stating that she undisputedly broke the law, and argues for the consequences as prescribed in that law. It then falls solely on Judge Zerbe to decide. After an intermission, we are in Appellate Court, revisiting Judge Zerbe's decision before a panel of three appellate judges, with Chief Judge Easterbrook presiding. Given the sophistication of arguments on both sides, and Judge Easterbrook's cantankerous disposition, it feels that the outcome could go either way. We tensely await his return from a brief recess to deliver the verdict.

In the closing scene we become participants in a citizenship ceremony, and are presented with the tremendous rights, privileges and obligations that come with American citizenship. It is likely a great many of those who became citizens by virtue of their birth are not fully aware of the latter: the obligations expected of all of us, but only formally presented to those who give up allegiance to another land and choose to become American citizens.

There are strengths in Moayed's strict adherence to the recorded text of both trials. It allows us to gain insight into how complicated and nuanced these cases are, as well as how difficult it is for most defendants to deal with the legalese. These attorneys and judges are not glibly articulate stage lawyers out of To Kill a Mockingbird or Inherit the Wind–the record shows them prone to stumble over words and change track mid-sentence. While this adds to the verisimilitude, it also makes the work somewhat plodding, dramatically. The true events depicted here are heartwrenching. The context of what, for the attorneys and judges, is another day at work, another day of referring to legal precedent, shuffling through files and notes, and going through the established protocols of the court, differentiates the mundane process from the gravity of its outcome. Moayed makes a clear point in his choices here, but at the expense of sustaining dramatic energy.

Stephanie Anne Bertumen, as defendant Elizabeth Keathley, gives the most affecting performance. Bertumen is convincingly in her naive belief that she had been given permission to vote, in her embarrassment about her limited English that likely affected her choice to forgo an interpreter, and in her heartbreak at the prospect of being separated from her family. Dustin Bronson is effective as her husband John. We can feel his love for his wife and his struggle to remain strong through the ordeal. It is concerning that John Keathley did not know any better than his foreign-born wife that an alien can never legally vote in an American election–a scathing comment on our failure to provide civic education–and Bronson's offhand manner as John states that he figured his wife had been approved for voting conveys a casualness about that failure that makes those concerns all the greater.

Three fine actors portray the three attorneys–Vinecia Coleman (Richard Hanus), Jay Owen Eisenberg (representing the Department of Homeland Security), and Melanie Wehrmacher (representing the Department of Justice at the appeal)–but all three are hampered by the adherence to the text as spoke in court, resulting in jarring delivery that undermines its dramatic impact. Megan Kim, filling in for Lily Tung Crystal as Judge Zerbe, did a fine job, showing the judge's efforts to be fair, while practicing a by-the-book thought process. As Judge Easterbrook, Allison Edwards embodies a magistrate who is inpatient with the business of the court yet committed to thinking through the case in order to arrive at a measured judgment. Lily Tung Crystal was also meant to play the judge presiding at the citizenship ceremony. For this, her replacement was an actual judge, the Honorable Judge John Docherty, adding a sense of solemnity to the plays conclusion.

James Rodriguez is an accomplished actor who picks up the mantle as director of The Courtroom, maintaining the intended sense of verisimilitude both in the performances and in the pacing. Khamphian Vang designed the apt costumes, which serve each participant well. The set, at the Hamline performances, is the actual room used by law school students for mock trials, requiring no additional dressing other than the addition of a seal over the judge's bench. The room's lights remain on, as would be the case were this an actual trial–or mass citizenship swearing-in.

I absolutely appreciate Arian Moayed's intention of bringing audiences through a bare and harrowing encounter with the labyrinthine American immigration system, especially for an individual who, in total innocence, ran afoul of that system. The case of an alien casting an election ballot may be unusual, but I have no doubt that all kinds of similarly unusual cases end up in hearings like these. The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings is an informing and illuminating work, to be sure. However, the dry and jarring court proceedings and the absence of a broader context–say, moments shared by Elizabeth and John, or external events that affect a judge's decision–leaves it a dramatically still work, missing the opportunity to lift us up, and drive us forward.

The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings runs through June 11, 2023, at West Hall, Hamline University, 1492 Hewitt Ave, St. Paul MN; and June 13, 2023 – July 2, 2023 at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Remaining performances at the Hamline location are sold out. For tickets and information call 612-822-7063 or visit

Transcripts Arranged by: Arian Moayed; Director: James Rodriguez; Costume Designer: Khamphian Vang; Lighting Designer: Karin Olson; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Dialect Coach: Patrick Chew; Stage Manager and Properties Designer: John Novak; Technical Director: John Lutz; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.

Cast: Stephanie Anne Bertumen (Elizabeth Keathley), Dustin Bronson (John Keathley/Judge Michael Stephen Kanne), Vinecia Coleman (Richard Hanus), Michelle De Joya (Understudy), Alison Edwards (Judge Frank Easterbrook), Jay Owen Eisenberg (Gregory Guckenberger/Judge Kenneth Ripple), Kevin Fanshaw (Understudy), Charlene Holm (Clerk/Bailiff), Megan Kim (Understudy), Lily Tung Crystal (Judge Craig Zerbe/Judge Chin), Melanie Wehrmacher (Margaret O'Donnell).