By Bill Hirschman
A balladeer strums a guitar and croons “paso o paso” – step by step. Expressionistic puppets represent a desert wolf and a pet dog conversing in English. A young woman pours out yearning in a stream of Spanish.
Embracing the eloquence that only imaginative theatricality can provide, Theatre Lab’s Refuge depicts a deeply moving journey through the current immigration crisis viewed not as a political issue, but a complex human one.
It is told through the eyes of specific people: a Honduran woman who has snuck across the Texas border, a grizzled rancher nursing a personal loss, and a pregnant Hispanic Border Patrol officer trying to deal with the human conundrum.
Refuge melds music, drama, humor, puppetry, and considerable speeches totally in Spanish, along with English narration and dialogue. The result is Mexican-flavored campfire story told through magical realism and mysticism that reflect deep human emotion while indulging in theatrical fantasy.
The bilingual work was “co-created” by Satya Jnani Chávez (who wrote the Spanish passages and the evocative music) and Andrew Rosendorf (an established playwright but also a former Florida Stage staffer) plus some translations by Mari Meza-Bucos. Chávez also directed the evening as well as acted as music director for the crucial underscoring.
Describing the plot flattens its flavor and essence. Girl (Nathalie Andrade) has made it about 70 miles north of the border through the desert to the Eden property of Rancher (Michael Gioia) while Martina (Melinette Pallares) is the border agent tracking her. Girl can speak no English and Rancher only has a modicum of Spanish. The two, unsure of each other and uneasy, circle in a slow bonding in a world rife with drug smuggling and dead bodies left in the desert to be eaten by wolves.
Rancher’s dog Steph (Gaby Tortoledo) sometimes barks, sometimes speaks English; a Wolf (Kevin Cruz) can howl or converse. Throughout, Krystal Millie Valdes serenades with poignant harmonic melodies backed by the entire cast as musical and dramatic chorus to the proceedings.
The script has a musical quality of its own as Girl tries to find refuge with the rancher whose late daughter believed deeply in helping people seeking a new home. But nothing is simple and there is death and sadness to deal with. What comes through clearly is placing the ultimate value on human empathy that transcends politics and policies.
The evening is replete with metaphors reflected in nature such as a saguaro cactus and the Big Dipper, both connected to the Rancher’s dead daughter, Sarah.
Chávez’s physical staging is beautifully fluid, although the narrative in the opening scenes feels a bit muddled and hard to follow. Some of the artistic touches are indecipherable. For instance, the company holds a long black stretch of lace over a dummy meant to be a stand-in for a dead migrant. Only in the script do you realize that the choice of fabric and color represent a common piece of arbor called Black Ironwood.
But in the ingenious staging, she includes memorable grace notes not in the script. Some are beautifully simple such as having two actors as part of the chorus, softly whistle like the eerie desert wind.
Or on the side of the set are stacks of shoes and clothing. This makes no immediate sense until late in the play when the cast take pair after pair after pair of shoes to a grave site as a memorial; we realize these are all from people who crossed into this country and died in the desert.
Still, Chávez expertly communicates the overall emotional through-line guiding an earnest cast who never sidestep a deep commitment to inhabiting this story and its themes.
The proverbial elephant in the room is that Girl only speaks Spanish, including impassioned speeches, which include crucial information. If you don’t speak Spanish, this requires an audience member to invest a much higher level of concentration to deduce what Girl is saying. Fortunately, Andrade is so emotive that, at a minimum, a loose general underlying sense emerges. As the balladeer warns in an early line not in the script, “If you listen with your heart, you’ll understand.” Further, the playwrights have made some effort to help by having the Rancher often say a single word or phrase in response during a dialogue that gives a hint as to what the girl has been saying. But, honestly, it’s frustrating.
But there is an overwhelming positive result that pays off: It underscores for everyone both the seeming barrier between people – and yet the bonding commonality of the underlying universal emotion.
Yet, to be fair, key plot points and sources for character motivation get a bit lost during the linguistic tumult of the evening and, as someone said, some audience members will pick up these points earlier than others. But eventually, most of it does seep through.
The terrific puppets designed by John Shamburger – the dog and the wolf notable for bright yellow eyes plus a rattlesnake, vulture and kangaroo rat – are deftly brought to life especially by Tortoledo and Cruz.
The setting looks a little like the storage room in a warehouse filled with items taken from dead or arrested migrants, plus an acting area next to the audience. Seven patrons are seated on stage.
Refuge has a five-year history illustrative of the modern dramaturgical process. It was first imagined by Rosendorf. Chávez wrote music to go with it, then the two began reworking the play together. It was commissioned by the Curious Theatre Company in Denver and developed at the Colorado New Play Festival. Then it was further developed at workshops and readings at Theatre Lab here in Boca Raton and the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.
It was selected by the National New Play Network for its Rolling World Premiere Program. NNPN is an alliance of theaters dedicated to developing and refining new work. It arranges for at least three member companies to produce the same play over 18 months, giving the playwright an opportunity to see the work fully produced on stage, then the chance to rewrite it, then to see it fully produced again, then to rewrite it again for a third production. The play bowed at Curious, then the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, and now Theatre Lab.
Refuge plays through April 23 at Theatre Lab, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $35-$45. Call 561-297-6124 or visit www.fau.edu/artsandletters/theatrelab