Refugia: Serrand & Co. do gorgeous work

The Moving Company at the Guthrie, through June 17

Christina Baldwin and Nathan Keepers in Refugia. Photo by Dan Norman

Lately there’s been a multitude of shows in Twin Cities theatres about refugees and immigrants. They’ve run the course from last year’s pandering production of Flower Drum Song at Park Square to the spare but beautiful production of Promise Land by TransAtlantic Love Affair.

Moving Company’s world premiere of Refugia, now playing at the Guthrie, sets a new standard for this subject matter. In ten chapters Refugia (written by Steven Epp, Dominique Serrand and Nathan Keepers) weaves tales of migration into an evening that harbors poignancy, intelligence and depth.

The chapters, though separate, speak to each other in unexpected ways. In Chapter Two border patrols in Sasabe, Arizona are forced to decide what to do with an unaccompanied child, a cardboard “HELP” sign tied around her neck. It’s the end of the day and the sweaty, overweight patrols just want to go home.

Later, near the end of the first act, this Arizona scene is mirrored by the story of a Soviet check point circa 1957 and a couple asking to emigrate from the USSR to Israel. Epp again plays the commanding officer as he did in the Arizona scene. Keepers (in what is possibly the best performance of his career) and Christina Baldwin are the frightened, but hopeful, couple. The man’s vocation as a composer grants him the words to express the need for both freedom and discipline in his compositions and in his life. Inspectors rifle through his luggage looking for reasons to detain him and find only sheets of music which pile up on the stage in drifts of paper.

Over and over we are shown what people give up when they flee their homes. The evening’s most complex story involves a family from Algeria who live in Marseilles, France. The son, (Jamal Abdunnasir) is a French citizen who abandons his home. His mother and father (Rendah Heywood and Orlando Pabotoy) fear he has travelled to Syria to fight in the war. This story combines exile, alienation, and the irony of citizenship in a country where many people deny you are one of them. Surprisingly, the tale picks up again after intermission and melds with another story of refugees in a United Nations camp.

The vast McGuire proscenium stage has wrecked more than one production when directors and designers are unable to handle its size and the theatre’s poor acoustics. In Refugia, set designer Riccardo Hernandez houses the stage with corrugated metal forming an industrial warehouse. Serrand’s genius takes care of the rest. People move on stage and through scene after scene as if the space were half its size. Suitcases form an enclosed space in one chapter. In another, women huddle together during an air strike to form an intimate space. When an elderly woman pulls out a key for the door to her home in Aleppo, saying she’ll go home one day, the hollow metal container two big for their lives is in itself, part of the story being told.

If Refugia has a flaw it is in the penultimate story. Chapter nine is a full-out farce involving an American researching his ancestry at a public library. The comedy comes as welcome relief from the journey we’ve been on, but some trimming would help keep the multiple tales alive to the end.

On opening night Joseph Haj, the new artistic director at the Guthrie, could be seen chatting with Serrand during intermission. Thank the theatre gods that Haj had the good sense to invite Serrand and his outstanding troupe back to the Guthrie stage. Their production of Refugia is skilled storytelling by a creative team acting at a very high level. This is a don’t miss theatrical event.

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