Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Refugia" by the Moving Company at the Guthrie Theater

One of my favorite theater companies, The Moving Company (an offshoot of the dearly departed Theatre de la Jeune Lune), made their Guthrie debut last weekend with Refugia, after five or so years of producing new work that is interesting, bizarre, lovely, or all of the above. Several of my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers* saw it opening night and had some strong reactions, to say the least. Even though I mostly stayed out of the conversation, when I saw the show last night I couldn't help but look for issues. And I did find some, although I also found some really beautiful moments and a powerful and timely message. Would I have noticed these issues if not for my friends? I don't know, but I'm grateful to them for speaking their experiences honestly and opening up a conversation. A conversation that will continue with an open forum discussing representation** in theater coming up at the Guthrie (I'll post the details when they become available). In the meantime, go see the show and decide for yourself.

The Moving Company created Refugia through a series of workshops in response to the current refugee crisis (at a talk-back about immigration after Sweet Land last weekend, a panelist said that there is more forced migration now than in any time in the history of the world!). The work is made up of eight stories about refugees, some of them interrelated. One of the most powerful is the recurring story of an Algerian couple who immigrated to France, where they had a son, and are now seeing their son pulled into the terrorist movement. The parents do anything they can to get their on back, which feels painfully real. Are parents of terrorists proud of them? Or do they want to thwack them over the head with a suitcase and yell, "you idiot, I raised you better than that!" We also follow a group of women fleeing from Syria to Germany, a scared and lost child at the Arizona/Mexico border, and a Polish couple in 1957 who are attempting to immigrate to Israel from USSR. Put together, these stories present a powerful case that we're all immigrants, we're all refugees, and we're all looking for the same thing - a safe place to call home.

Unfortunately, this beautiful and important message was muddied a bit in the telling. In a show that pushes three hours, the final comic epilogue dragged on way too long and lessened the effect of what we had just experienced. On it's own it's an amusing skit filled with the familiar MoCo silliness mixed with the profound (which I happen to adore), but in this case it didn't seem to serve the story. Another issue I had with the show is the all too liberal use of fat suits. I know that it's part of the many costumes the eight-person ensemble donned to transform into different characters, but putting padding on a woman and then making a joke about it is not the same as putting on a wig. If they wanted to show women with a range of body types, they should have cast women with a range of body types (and that goes for all of the theaters, BTW). Another thing to think about is the perspective from which these stories are being told (which my friend Laura writes about on One Girl, Two Cities).

the cast of Refugia (photo by Dan Norman)
But on the plus side, this is a really great cast that's fun to watch, including company members Steven Epp, Christina Baldwin (whose gorgeous vocals add much to the poignancy of many of the chapters), and Nathan Keepers. They're joined by the adorable young Maia Hernandez and Guthrie newcomers Jamal Abdunnasir, Rendah Heywood, and Orlando Paboty (all with powerful, nuanced performances), and Kendra 'Vie Boheme' Dennard (with the best name and a moving dance piece). You might recognize a few familiar local faces in the additional ensemble members, who add much to the story by their silent presence. Until the too long epilogue, the show is well-paced and well-staged (company member Dominique Serrand directs), with chapter titles and locations displayed in supertitles. The versatile set of steel and bare wood, with sections that open up and move around, is used to good effect (set design by Riccardo Hernández). Sonya M. Berlovitz's costumes cover a wide variety of eras, styles, and characters (but again, no fat suits please). And much of the show is filled with the poetry, music, and physical theater storytelling that the Moving Company does so well.

So there you have it, the good, the bad, the ugly. As I said to my fellow TCTB, if one of the goals of theater is to start a conversation, then Refugia is a raging success! As long as we keep making art that matters, trying new things, being open about how we feel about what we're doing or what we're seeing, and take the time to listen to each other, I think we'll be OK.

Refugia continues on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium stage through June 11.

*Read more opinions on this show from One Girl, Two Cities and Compendium.
**For more on representation in theater and the media see Mu's Charles Francis Chan Jr's Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery in the Guthrie Studio, and Walking Shadow's Red Velvet at the Southern, both closing this weekend.


sonyaberlovitz said...

the decision to use fat pads was not mine alone. The whole point of having the men make fun of the social worker (christina baldwin) in chapter two is to show exactly how stupid those kinds of people who do that are. I hear what you're saying, but it makes me sad. So by your standards a pretty, thin woman should only play a pretty, thin woman? Did you realize the actress playing Faridah was also wearing a padding? Paddings are used all of the time to change actor's architecture. I'd certainly be willing to participate in more conversation about this as I feel as though you're suggesting i censor my work.

sonyaberlovitz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura VZ said...

I would love to hear of your thoughts on this! :) Knowing Jill's love and passion for theater, it seems like anything that will help her better understand her experience is welcome as well.

I've heard from many people (not just women) who found the padding problematic, and I can only imagine how disappointing it is to hear this since everything I've heard from people who created the show said it was very intentional. But if so many people are obviously misunderstanding the intention, could there have been a more effective way to communicate the message?

Should a pretty, thin woman only play a pretty, thin woman? Representation in theater is very important and as someone who has struggled with weight their whole life, I found the padding very uncomfortable as I thought about the fact that I can't go home at the end of the day and remove my "padding." Roles, in theater and life in general, generally come easier to pretty, thin women, so there's a subliminal message (unintentional or not) that tells full figured women that they weren't good enough to have this role.

Should a person of one religion play a person of a different religion? Should a cis person play a non-binary person? Does representation still matter when it's a narrative not immediately visible to the naked eye? This is a question posed by Keith of Live in Revue that I've been thinking about a lot lately. I don't think there's a right or wrong answer to this but in the scope of representation, it's a good conversation to have. Thank you for joining this conversation; your voice adds a lot of value.

jill said...

Hi Sonya. Thank you for your comments. I certainly didn't mean to shame you or question your artistic choices, the costumes are beautiful! And I recognize the decision was a company-wide one. Yes I did notice that several characters wore padding (hence my comment on "liberal" use of fat suits) and it concerned me in all instances.

You ask "should a pretty, thin woman only play a pretty, thin woman?" First of all, who said anything about pretty? I did not make any value judgments based on body size and I hope you aren't either. But if the question is "should a thin woman only play a thin woman" my answer is yes. Because, as Laura mentioned, full-figured women don't have the choice to remove parts of their body and play a thin woman. In the same way a person in a wheelchair does not have the option to get out of the wheelchair and play a person not in a wheelchair, so an able-bodied person "crippling up" to play a person in a wheelchair takes opportunities away from people with a disability.

Make-up artists used to apply blackface and yellowface as part of their artistry, but we've all agreed that is not appropriate. Is that censoring the make-up artists? I would argue that it's not censorship, but allowing people of all types to be authentically represented on stage.

Lastly, I want to reiterate this is not an issue just with this show, or with theater in general, but is a systemic issue in a culture that values thinness in women, at times seemingly above all else. We can all do better.

sonyaberlovitz said...

Dear Jill, your response makes me sad indeed. Thank you for your feedback. I'm glad you're expressing yourself, as a Jewish woman I know navigating in this case theater can be challenging. But, above all else I believe great theater should do exactly what this is: provoking discussion and debate. Thank you. I’m going to leave it there. My best to you.