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Life in Permanent Transit

BECAUSE WHEN IT SNOWS YOU DON'T SEE IT-- U.S.S.R. BORDER CROSSING. VALE POSOF, GEORGIA. WINTER. 1957, Christina Baldwin, Nathan Keepers. Photo by Dan Norman

May 13 – June 11, 2017
Guthrie Theater (McGuire Proscenium Stage)
Presented by The Moving Company in partnership with Guthrie Theater
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett June 1, 2017

As millions of refugees live and die throughout the world and political actions cause, confound, and contribute to these tragedies, what can theater possibly accomplish in the face of this world-wide social turmoil? Probably not much in the grand scheme of things but maybe in terms of community awareness, theater can at least raise the issues and foster dialogue, perhaps even social activism. Ancient Greek theater exerted the metaphoric power of live performance to affect the socio-political awareness of the community. And throughout human culture this potency of theater has been recognized by ruling power systems and resulted in censorship or propagandistic co-option. This kind of theater rattles the central nerves of a society because it is capable of bringing us face to face with an uncomfortable truth while it challenges our capacity for empathy. “Refugia” works on that level— gradually and progressively, with every scene, it infiltrates one’s consciousness about one’s place in the world, about the fragility of one’s place.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently 65.3 million people around the world forced from home; among them are 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of eighteen. While some of this displacement is the result of natural disasters, most of it is caused by human actions. War and terror, political persecution and economic deprivation have been plaguing large swaths of the world. Human capacity for cruelty seems infinite while viable solutions are often derailed by interests vested in war and power mongering. This is our landscape and the landscape that “Refugia” explores.

TURN ROUND O EARTH---A PUBLIC LIBRARY. SOMEWHERE IN THE UNITED STATES. 2017, Rendah Heywood, Orlando Pabotoy, Kendra 'Vie Boheme' Dennard, Steven Epp, Nathan Keepers, Christina Baldwin. Photo by Dan Norman

“Refugia” is an ensemble devised work of theater that was originally work-shopped in 2015 by The Moving Company with theater department students at the University of Texas. It was further developed with the full support of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis where the world premiere took place in May 2017. The basic modus operandi of The Moving Company, formerly Theatre de la Jeune Lune, is to create new work for the theater from “scratch” without a prior script. The devised work is in response to a conflict situation in the world. During the rehearsal process the ensemble collectively explores the situation through research of source materials and interviews and ultimately develops a theatrical score (or script) through improvisation. The core members of The Moving Company, Director Dominique Serrand and actors Christina Baldwin, Steven Epp, and Nathan Keepers developed the script for “Refugia.” They were joined for this production by actors Jamal Abdunnasir, Rendah Heywood, Orlando Pabotoy, child actors Maia Hernandez and Carolina Sierra, and Dancer Kendra ‘Vie Boheme’ Dennard. Guthrie’s Artistic Director, Joseph Haj embraced the project because, as he says in his program welcome note: “Refugia” comes to the Guthrie stage at a time when the global community is wrestling with its obligation and relationship to refugees. Not only nations, but cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul included, are deciding how to respond and what they can offer... The Moving Company’s response is a deeply felt one that explores the notion of borders and what it means and looks like to cross them. These lines too often serve to separate us, to impede movement toward one another, and “Refugia” serves as a powerful reminder of what connects us. “

The three hour performance takes eight actors (and the audience) through nine “chapters” of an epic journey of displacement that encompasses not only the history of human displacement but includes ecological displacement, in short, the history of earth as a constantly disruptive planet. It is a large concept to press into the space and time of a theatrical event. It demands intense concentration and flexible receptivity from the audience as the actors move through a wildly diverse universe of concepts with spectacular acting ability that ranges from balletic movement, operatic vocalization, restrained “naturalistic” characterization, poetic fancy, to absurdly clownesque caricature. The text ranges from banal to poetic, from informative to philosophical, from crass humor to subtle pathos—and silences; it is like a musical score in which many voices come together to create an enormous theatrum mundi, a world theater. Perhaps Director Dominique Serrand and the actors drew on theatrical precedents, such as Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” with its mix of modern angst and glacial history or even Pina Bausch’s vision of social apocalypse through movement, text, and song. However, in my estimation, “Refugia” is unique in its scope of depicting human experience as one of constant transmigration. It happens on the individual biological level, on the species or genetic level, on the sociopolitical level—it happens across borders, walls, and bridges, real and metaphorical.

FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN-- NATO REFUGEE CAMP, THE TURKISH/SYRIAN BORDER. DECEMBER, 2015, Christina Baldwin, Rendah Heywood, Kendra 'Vie Boheme' Dennard, Maia Hernandez. Photo by Dan Norman.

Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez created on the spacious McGuire Proscenium stage a hangar like structure with moving walls that could transform in an instant from interior to exterior locales but where the clang of metal sliding doors mounted into the upstage wall were a constant reminder of closings. The lighting designed by Marcus Dillard and sound design by Scott W. Edwards underscored the ambience of each scene. The “chapters” are announced Brechtian style with projected titles (designed by Shawn Duan) that indicate locale and time as well as a certain emotional direction by quoting a song lyric or a line from the scene to come. A list of the locales and times will give an impression of the scope of the work: a hospital in the present; a border post in Arizona in 2014; an Algerian home in Marseille in 2015; a border crossing between the USSR and Georgia in 1957; the Turkish/Syrian border in 2015; a peninsula by the border between Lebanon and Turkey in 2015; the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016; and finally a public library somewhere in the US in 2017 with an underground passage reminiscent of Alice’s rabbit hole.

THE HEART'S JOURNEY IN WINTER-- Steven Epp, Jamal Abdunnasir. Photo by Dan Norman

The performance begins while the houselights are still on as though to emphasize the commonality of audience and actors sharing the same space. The Man, dressed in a wrinkled gray linen suit quietly appears downstage left and begins to talk to the audience at first in a hardly audible voice. As the lights dim, the first heading projects: “CHAPTER ONE: THE HEART’S JOURNEY IN WINTER” and the Man is heard saying: “You know how sometimes you find yourself…somewhere…Anywhere…I don’t know. Just think of a place…” Steven Epp plays the nameless Man deadpan, describes with a Beckettian just-being-there quality his existential moment of being lost in a no-time no-place but all too familiar environment. And gradually we realize this Man has migrated mentally from being-here to being-there. A trolley with a basin of water and a towel rolls on stage; he puts his head under the water for a seemingly endless moment, comes up, dries his head with the towel, and emerges an old gray-haired man. An attendant brings a walker, nurses busy themselves, and we realize we’re in a hospital. While the grandson appears, Man is undressed by an attendant who puts him in a hospital gown and coaxes him into a wheelchair. All this time the Man’s monologue continues and becomes progressively more poetic and visionary “My boy, have courage for you shall need it. The nations on this earth will have great troubles. And every living thing with roots or legs or wings shall be made to wander…You see, I had been riding with the storm clouds, and had fallen to earth as rain, and it was there I saw the circles of people in the valley. And I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw, for I was seeing the shapes of all things as they must live together as one being… And that place was filled with moaning. And with mourning. For all those displaced. Dispossessed. By the wind. Blowing. Without end. Like from a fever.” The first scene ends with a Nurse playing the piano and singing Brahms Rhapsody: “Aber abseits, wer ist’s? Ins Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad.” [But off to the side, who’s this? His path is lost in the brush.] The first scene establishes thus the entire trajectory of “Refugia.”


Another unforgettable scene takes place somewhere in an undefined time that brings together a dying (?) polar bear with an African woman. The projection announces this scene: Chapter Five “AND THEN THE UPROOTED SHALL BE CONSOLED BY THOSE LIKEWISE UPROOTED.” While water is spraying onto the stage from the side, a polar bear wanders on, eventually lies down, and a tall African woman—splendid Kendra ‘Vie Boheme’ Dennard-- comes onto the stage and in a slow gentle dance that evolves into one of the most marvelous pas de deux, lies down next to the polar bear, lifts him onto her back and takes him off stage. Not a word is spoken, only the woman’s bangles ring every now and then and the changing flow of water create sound. Down-stage left a figure enwrapped in a white antiseptic uniform records this event. This scene evoked for me the ecological disaster that climate change may bring about but, with science and empathy between human and animal, perhaps refuge from the worst can be found.

Other scenes are more topically related to present refugee situations: for example, on the US border with Mexico, along the Turkish/Syrian border, on the Mediterranean, and in Europe. Each of those scenes emphasizes the human toll by way of individualized stories. Two scenes deal with the alienation between parents and a radicalized son. In one scene, set in a modest but comfortable Marseille apartment of an Algerian immigrant shoemaker and his wife, both of whom are moderate Muslim, we hear of their daily harassment from their more fundamentalist neighbors, e.g. the wife is called a slut for not wearing a head-covering. However, the most painful fact in their life is the loss of their young son to radicalism. The wife insists that the father travel to Syria and bring him back. The subsequent scene between father and son is a fierce battle over existential convictions. Orlando Pabotoy plays the father Aadheen with a passion and physical and verbal ferocity that show his fear and frustration of losing his son. His son Abdou, played by Jamal Abdunnasir, counters with arguments that open the abyss between the older and younger generation of Arab immigrants to France but also reveal the isolation and loneliness these young men suffer who reject and are ultimately discarded by all sides. The suffering of women and children refugees is depicted in scenes set in refugee camps and on arrival at the coast of Lesbos—hope and fear alternate while the roar of bomber jets flying above on their way to Syria drowns out all talk. A scene on the border between Arizona and Mexico shows a young child holding up a sign “HELP” behind a chicken wire fence while a border guard and a social worker try to figure out how to communicate since the child does not speak English and the border officers don’t speak Spanish thus emphasizing the absurdity of the situation—the child ultimately outfoxes the adults and makes his way across while they are busy with their squabbles about rank. The 1957 border scene set in the USSR reveals the multiple flights of Polish Jewish artists and intellectuals, first from the Nazis to Soviet Russia, then attempting to flee from Soviet Anti-Semitism to Israel. Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin play the couple, a Jewish composer and his wife, a singer, both originally from Cracow, as they try to get away with a couple of suitcases filled with his avant-garde compositions based on mathematical principles. Steven Epp plays in this scene the Soviet official, cunning but obtuse, who deems the papers to contain a secret code that the composer tries to smuggle out of the country. He humiliates the composer who tries to explain to him his compositional technique, his philosophy of art, and his reasons for leaving; all the while soldiers are carelessly emptying the suitcases. The image of papers flying and being destroyed carries the full metaphoric weight of cultural destruction.

The final scene in the peculiar library “somewhere in the US” with its underground tunnels is the longest and most diverse in tone and action, from absurdly funny to a return to the poetic beginning. After a great deal of spoofing of genealogical searching with the inevitable discovery that Man is of geographically mixed descent from the time of the Wooly Mammoth and Cro-Magnon—some of the over-the-top skits are obviously derived from fertile improvisational imagination—the figure of the Old Man (Steven Epp) enters with his walker and declares: “We have made here a place of dwelling. It is a great cave. A cave, dug deep into the side of the sheer face of a cliff wall. A place, in which a population could survive it seems, survive even through a period of unfavorable conditions. A kind of refuge. We live here, with so many others, others who have also found their way here. We are here, surrounded by others, all of the others.” As all the other figures re-enter and surround him, and as a Tree grows from the stage trap, the Man continues: “And I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw, for I was seeing the shape of all things, as they must live together like one being and in the center grew one tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father, and on the branches many leaves came out and murmured and in the leaves the birds began to sing. And beneath it in the shade was every living thing with roots or legs or wings, living together, where all could be happy.” It ends with the soothing melody of Brahms and the ensemble, gathered around the Man, sings the final verse; “Ist auf Deinem Psalter, Vater der Liebe, ein Ton seinem Ohre vernehmlich, So erquicke sein Herz.” [If from your psalter, Father of Love, one tone may reach his ear, let his heart rejoice.] It is an apotheotic vision of what is possible, if only …

I wish this work a long life and that many audiences will have the privilege to take the journey with the company into and through the maelstrom of human existence. The theater is a mirror of reality and a refuge.

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