As the play starts, lead by Krystal Millie Valdes, you can already tell something is different. Not only is this performer giving some sort of house speech, but she’s doing so while accompanying herself on guitar and switching back and forth between English and Spanish – letting us know right out the gate that this play is not like most we have seen in South Florida.
REFUGE, a play with music co-created by Satya Jnani Chávez & Andrew Rosendorf, tells the story of a young Honduran girls journey as she crosses the US border into the inhospitable, barren land of Texas through original music, artistic puppetry and magical realism. With Chávez on as director, the play has the chance to truly shine through the creators vision, the visuals and music intertwining in a way that someone else might not have had the foresight to attempt. Each of the characters that tell this very well lived and yet not widely known(outside the latine community) story have a life and color of their own that the actors ground themselves in.
The play starts with a beautiful opening number, Musíca(Krystal Valdes), is our guide on this journey of escape and exile, a character who in a way haunts the world. Her music leads the way from scene to scene, moment to moment. While this play technically isn’t a musical, Valdes(a native Miami artist) underscores the play from beginning to end, the songs giving us a grounded sense of the world and how it feels when struggling to survive, when thrown out into the wilderness and being forgotten as human. Valdes gives what might be the most powerful performance in the play – without actually interacting with any of the other characters. Her voice and guitar playing alternate between soft and intimate to loud and powerful – the most impactful moment being when she chanted on repeat, “No identificados. No olvidados.” This translates to, “Unidentified, but not forgotten.” – and when the repetition of this hits you again and again and again – a smart device by the creators which was only truly felt because of Valdes’ inspired and authentic performance.
Girl(Nathalie Andrade), the main protagonist that we follow on this odyssey, risks everything she is and knows in order to find a new home on the other side of the border. Andrade rides an emotional roller coaster, in such a precise and authentic way that the audience can’t help but hope and pray for her safety.
Martina(Melinette Pallares), the pregnant border patrol officer hot on the trail of Girl, exists between two worlds. All she wants is to help those that make their way across, to make sure they survive the harsh land and make it back home alive but… they know that it never works out that way, so of course she is made to be the villain, while herself existing in a Latine body. Pallares portrays that internal conflict well, that earnest attempt at doing what is best for these people on the run.
Rancher(Michael Gioia), an old farm hand of a man living on this side of the fence with his old dog, has blocked himself up for so long since the loss of his daughter. As he comes into contact with Girl, those defenses start to wain, and thanks to the expertly detailed internal journey given by Gioia, we are there with him every step of the way. From the comedic jibes to the heartbreaking conclusion that his story reaches.
Michael Gioia & Melinette Pallares
Steph(Gaby Tortoledo), the Ranchers old dog, is more than a pet, she is his best friend. Always there to protect and help him make the right decisions. This is one of two main characters that function as puppets, puppets that thanks to design by John Shamburger and the way the actors embodied the animal characters, they humans almost disappeared. Tortoledo gave us the same energy we see in happy, beloved dogs that have puppy energy no matter the age, which only helped immerse us into this musically magical world.
Then last but not least; Wolf/Hal(Kevin Cruz) – Wolf existing as a character doing whatever it can and needs to survive. Nothing it does comes from a place of malice or “evil”, because all it is trying to do is survive, live. Hal on the other hand… as a seldom seen character, the few moments he appears do entertain and give us some well deserved laughs until the laughter stop – and that’s all that can be said. Cruz effortless switches between the two, his Wolf lurking in stature and voice while with Hal he dawns a Texan dialect, and fills each word and phrase with a laid back and jester-like attitude.
Not unlike the stunning performances, the scenic and properties design(Alyiece Morreto-Watkins, Timothy S. Dickey, and Margaret Schuettler) are something to behold. Now that might seem silly to say but, with a play like this, where characters travel from place to place, needing a change of scenery is necessary. But instead of bringing on flats or anything of the traditional form, the set is littered with what might feel like random objects, and to think this only leads to a pleasant surprise. Now for the first time in Theatre Lab history, this show is performed in the round, a choice that gives the entire creative team a wide range of freedom. The cast grabs pieces from the set from retractable dog leashes connected to what appear to be steel pipes to create a makeshift fence, or emergency flash lights for car headlights – and small details such as this might seem unspecific or purposeful beyond necessity – and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Just like most latine families that come here from other countries, struggling, working any and every job – they become experts at making things work any way they can, resourcefulness is their highest commodity, spending as little money as possible in order to get the job done, just like the use of simple props to create location changes reflects that same inventive intelligence that guides their lives and strength of will. The rest of the set is made to look ambiguous enough for the constant changes but specific enough to ground us in a desert like space – down to the twinkling lights above as stars.
Let’s change things up a bit… Normally, writing and remaining objective within the 3rd person is key when it comes to reviewing a show, at least that is what I have learned but, for this show I need to try something different, so, here we go.
Maybe I haven’t been to enough South Florida theatre to have an opinion but, I can’t remember I saw or heard of a play in that main regional market with this much Spanish, encompassing more than 50% of the language, and yet as far as one can tell, it didn’t hinder anyones experience. As Matt Stabile put it, “Everyone is going to get the story, just not at the same time”, and as a Spanish speaker myself, the literal chills of excitement that crawled across my skin as the opening number kicked off the show was all the proof I needed to let me know that this was something different.
Being one of (if not the only) Latine theatre critic in South Florida means I had no choice but to watch REFUGE, and I went in hesitant, low expectations – and for the first 60 seconds I genuinely believed that maybe I was physically cold, only to realize it had nothing to do with the temperature, and everything to do with the fact that I was hearing music and dialogue in Spanish on the stage in a way that didn’t feel contrived, gimmicky, or unnecessary. This show not only tells a story that I know all too well, having literally been in the room when a relative was forcefully taken away and deported as we were sleeping, but it also speaks to the idea of how we all want to be seen as people, no matter where we come from, and how or where we choose to exist.
This is an important play. Is it 100% flawless and perfect? Of course not, because with a topic such as this it is impossible to completely avoid the trap that is “preaching” – but, this is still something special to be seen. What Chávez and Rosendorf have created is a story about the struggle to exist for those that are completely pushed aside, made to feel like less – giving these untold but often lived stories a voice for those that unknowingly wear blinders.
Melinette Pallares, Kevin Cruz, Gaby Tortoledo, Michael Gioia, Krystal Millie Valdes, Nathalie Andrade