When one more or less spends their life wandering from theatre to theatre, one gets used to experiencing quite a range of emotional intensity; yet I believe there are few plays this season that I found quite as moving as I found Refuge, a new play by Satya Jnani Chávez and Andrew Rosendorf that is currently finishing up its rolling world premiere at FAU’s Theatre Lab. Even at a glance, there are also quite a few qualities of this production that mark it as something out of the ordinary; for one, a significant portion of the dialogue is delivered only in Spanish, with no subtitles or translation to be found.
Since I have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language, this meant I was able to recognize a few basic words during these segments but not know in any real sense what was said. And though the story being told is a very mature one, the use of puppets and music throughout creates a sort of children’s theatre “vibe” that gives the production an unusual, almost mystical quality, something the foreign unknowability of some of its language only enhanced.
Though this language gap did also mean that I initially missed a few subtle details that only became clear when I later looked through the script, it in no way hampered my ability to understand the “big picture” of what was happening due to combinations of context clues and the cast’s incredible acting.
From left to right: Melinette Pallares, Gaby Tortoledo, Michael Gioia, Nathalie Andrade, Kevin Cruz. MORGAN SOPHIA PHOTOGRAPHY.
For instance, though she was playing a character that spoke almost entirely in Spanish, lead actress Nathalie Andrade was incredibly proficient in using her face, voice, and body to communicate in a more raw and more universal language, emoting and moving with an almost feral quality that well befit her character’s desperation.
That character would be a teenage Honduran refugee, one initially referred to as a boy but who we later get to know as a girl who has taken on the disguise in order to be safer from those who would seek to violate her. Her trek across the border has taken her to a fictional town that has much in common with many real ones: Desolation, Texas, a harsh desert that, as another character, the Rancher, wryly states near the play’s beginning, definitely ain’t Boca Raton.
The girl stumbles onto the property of this rancher, a complex character who is played with the necessary depth by actor Michael Gioia. He is at once wary of and compassionate towards this young interloper, an attitude that is quite understandable given his past experiences, which include some quite traumatic ones involving the many illegal immigrants who he now must constantly contend with.
“Used to be I’d go days without seeing anyone on my land, was a refuge…now I can’t go anywhere without a gun,” he says.
But he also has compelling reasons to be sympathetic to this girl, especially once he discovers her true gender; she then begins to remind him more of his late daughter Sarah, who had made a priority of leading “illegals” to safety.
The other principle human character in the piece is a border patrol agent named Martina, who has been carefully tracking the girl’s path. In a twist that adds even more resonances to the impressively layered story, Martina is not only Latina herself but also about 8 and a half months pregnant, which makes for a profound moment when she comes across a dead mother and baby who had not survived their own perilous journey across the border.
“Can’t imagine the fear I’ll have once she’s out in this world,” she then reflects about her daughter-to-come.
Yet, in Refuge, even this goriest of images is conveyed in beautiful, lyrical terms, with one description of the woman revealing that her “breasts are breaking open like a fissure in the Earth.”
Last but not least are two characters “played” by puppets: Steph, the rancher’s dog, voiced and maneuvered by Gaby Tortoledo, and a mysterious wolf or “lobo” voiced and maneuvered by Kevin Cruz. Both performers effectively add animal qualities to their characters in the form of barks and howls while also not losing sight of the more human perspective the play’s circumstances call for. Cruz also briefly appears as Hal, an initially amusing but secretly sinister fellow agent of Martina’s, giving the actor a chance to showcase his more comedic skills.
From left to right: Gaby Tortoledo & Melinette Pallares. MORGAN SOPHIA PHOTOGRAPHY.
The dichotomy between the comparatively cozy life Steph enjoys on the ranch and the wolf’s existence of constant hunger and danger is one meant to echo the one that exists between those like the rancher and Martina and those like the girl and her fellow travelers; the dichotomy between those who have had what Martina admits is the “luck” of being born here and those who have not.
All the while, as this story plays out, it is narrated by the ensemble serving as a kind of Greek chorus and underscored by the guitar-playing of a character known as Musica, who, though this is never stated outright, is implied to be the spirit of Sarah, and in a way, serves as the show’s invisible life force. With her uniquely powerful voice, Krystal Millie Valdes not only has all the musical talent to inhabit her role but expressively reacts to all that is happening around her and to the presence of other characters, including the Girl, her father, and Martina, with whom Sarah once shared a special relationship.
It’s moments like these—and like a few other poignant moments that find characters facing death or dealing with loss—that I have to find myself holding back tears merely revisiting. Using the figure of the wolf, the play also gets at yet more profound ideas about the ways in which we are all connected, despite or perhaps in a sense because of the ways in which this world is an inherently violent one, with some part of us living on in even the things that consume us.
From left to right: Gaby Tortoledo, Nathalie Andrade, Krystal Millie Valdes, Michael Gioia, Kevin Cruz, Melinette Pallares. MORGAN SOPHIA PHOTOGRAPHY.