By Megan Mooney
I had to steel myself for this one. I was convinced that Alameda Theatre Company’s world premier of Carmen Aguirre’s The Refugee Hotel was going to kick me in the gut. I was convinced that I was going to feel dragged down by the whole thing. And, don’t get me wrong, the piece is by no means what I’d call “easy”, but the heart-wrenching content is nicely balanced by a great deal of humour.
Like my show-partner for this one, John, I know woefully little about Pinochet’s Chilean coup on 11 September 1973 and the resulting aftermath. I had heard vague things about horrible atrocities, about people being rounded up and tortured, and about a soccer stadium being used as a prison camp. Basically, I knew no details, I just knew it was horrific.
I thought perhaps this show would tell me a bit more about what happened. But this was not a didactic piece, this was an emotional piece. I heard more detail about torture (which makes this show not for the squeamish or faint of heart), but other than that, there were no details about the coup. Although it was wrapped in a specific Chilean experience, I think what I learned about was a refugee experience. Through the example of post WWII Jews, the play reminded us that it had happened before and that it is still happening today with people from Iraq and Afghanistan and others.
Keep in mind though, this is still a play about the specific experience of eight refugees. It can be generalized, but there is power in the specific. In the director/playwright’s notes, Aguierre points out that “It had always been okay to talk about the suffering of “the people”, but not one’s own”. Making it about specific people, people we can develop a vested interest in, makes it more powerful, and that much more difficult and frightening.
Even my show-partner, who seems to be a bit adverse to what he calls “angsty plays”, had his heart strings tugged. He liked the show. Although, he did say that it perhaps suffered a little bit from “important play syndrome.” I suppose I can see what he’s saying a bit, but it didn’t bother me. It’s a stylistic preference. He also said he thought that perhaps the piece could have benefitted from someone who was a bit more removed from the subject matter, or the whole show in general, providing input into the piece.
Doing a show like this is a tough one. There’s no way to work with a script like this and not care about it in a deeply personal way. Well, none that I know anyway. So, I’m not sure how you can step back and try and see it through uninvolved eyes. I think the challenge for John was that there are points where it would have been helpful to have context. There is a dancer who accompanies some of the action, and I found the dance more distracting than beneficial, but I am guessing that it has some kind of specific relevance culturally.
In terms of acting, the show was well performed in general, but there were a few stand outs for me, most notably Salvatore Antonio (Manuel) and Beatriz Pizano (Flaca). I found them very captivating and pretty hard to look away from. I think my biggest challenge with the performances was believing Cristina (played by Cheri Maracle) was only 18 years old. The character seemed to carry with her more of and air of the wisdom of age as opposed to the intense anger of youth I think was in the script. That said, other than the age issue, I enjoyed the other aspects of Maracle’s performance.
The Refugee Hotel is a powerful, engaging, moving, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes funny piece of theatre. It’s definitely worth taking the time to see. Just don’t forget your kleenex.
– The Refugee Hotel is playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave) until October 4, 2009
– Performances are Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm | Saturday/Sunday Matinee: 2:30pm
– Ticket prices range from $15 to $32
– Tickets are available from the Arts Box Office 416‐504‐7529
Photo of Juan Carlos Velis, Beatriz Pizano and Leanna Brodie by Itai Erda