By Sharon Geltner
Refuge, a new play running this month at FAU Theatre Lab, is reminiscent of Gregory Nava’s 1983 film El Norte, maybe because when it comes to immigration, little has changed.
Refuge is about a girl who gets separated from her group of Mexican, Honduran and perhaps other Latin American immigrants, attempting the harrowing trek across the Texan desert. This play, co-created by Satya Jnani Chávez and Andrew Rosendorf, covers suffering, loss and the search for a better life. The entire cast’s performances are heartfelt and feel personal.
The plot: a teen girl (known only as Girl) gets separated from her group north of the border and is spotted by the Rancher. He’s old, alone, sitting on 40,000-plus acres with migrants causing $20,000 in property damage in just the last year.
Michael Gioia as the Rancher seems like a natural in the role. He says, “My ranch was a refuge from the world. I’d go for weeks without seeing an illegal. Now it’s all the time. I can’t go anywhere without a gun.”
He finds Girl limping with what looks like dried blood on her filthy socks. After initial mistrust and bilingual heated exchanges, he declares, “If one of my horses had feet like that, I’d shoot it.” But he rubs her feet with healing ointment. The scene hearkens to the early Christian church custom of showing humility and serving in love.
In this way, Refuge shows us the conflict between being merciful to millions of desperate, impoverished people seeking prosperity in America (with no hope that their homelands will ever improve) and being overwhelmed by compassion fatigue. The actors increase the intimacy by inviting members of the audience to sit on the stage through the entire performance (“best seat in the house”).
The cast also performed within inches of patrons seated in the audience. They increased the intensity by performing for 90 minutes with no intermission. They also sang and Krystal Millie Valdes played guitar. Nathalie Andrade, who played Girl, is a classically trained soprano, with previous musical theater and opera experience. Best of all, the cast performed with puppets.
The cast sang: “We try to survive here but the desert always wins.”
It says a lot about the well-designed set, clever props and sincere actors that the play calls to mind the harrowing scenes of Mexican desert predators and prey in the opening title sequence of the 1970 Clint Eastwood-Shirley MacLaine movie, Two Mules for Sister Sara. Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa produced those opening shots. He was also the cameraman for the 1950 Mexico City film Los Olvidados (The Forgotten).
The Refuge cast mourns the migrants who die horrible desert deaths by singing they will “soon be forgotten” — that is, los olvidados.
The puppets included a pet dog, lone wolf, vicious rattlesnake and vulture. There was also a believable barbed wire fence, starry sky and a bench that, with imagination, turned into a car.
The play’s best scene, achieving transcendence, occurs late at night outside the ranch, when the lone wolf stalks the pet dog.
“Let me come over to you,” the wolf says. “I won’t even eat you.”
“No,” responds the pet, “We are not the same pack.”
That dark scene cast a spell and the audience was transfixed.
The excellent Kevin Cruz might be the most novice actor on stage, but convincingly played the howling wolf, “abandoned by my pack for being too small,” and a sleazy border agent who sings Journey tunes. “Don’t stop believing….” “I’m forever yours, faithfully…”
Refuge ratchets up the tension when characters, suffering in the 112-degree heat, trudge past dusty barrels and empty water bottles.
Yet it’s freezing Fargo, the 1986 Coen Brothers movie, that is pertinent. Frances McDormand played Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minn., investigating a kidnapping.
In Refuge, Melinette Pallares plays Martina, 8 ½ months pregnant and a border agent based in Desolation, Texas. Both women are steeped in policework while concerned about the cruel, capricious and often criminal world they are bringing their babies into.
The last line of Fargo is, “Two months,” referring to when Marge’s baby will be born.
Martina closes Refuge when she departs, “If you will excuse me, I am going to give birth.”
Despite the fine acting and magical realism with the puppets, the action was sometimes overwhelmed by heavy-handed dialogue. “We are all illegal here. Borders are everywhere. Someone is always on the wrong side.”
Back in Hollywood’s golden years, Moss Hart or Samuel Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Today, it’s Twitter, but same point. The audience is being entertained and already understands this:
“…we are fortunate to live in a country people want to enter, instead of escape. And fortunate because so many of our immigrants are the best and the brightest. It takes imagination, ambition and courage to leave your homeland and start over again in a strange land. One reason that immigrants often seem to do well here is that they were self-selected as brave and determined.”
That’s Roger Ebert in 2004, critiquing El Norte.
REFUGE. FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Now playing through Sunday, April 23. $35-$45. 561-297-2124, or visit www.fau.edu/TheatreLab.
Sharon Geltner is the author of Charity Bashed, a Palm Beach mystery, available on Amazon.