march 2017 | Volume 153
Photo credit: Emily Cooper
There’s a lovely symmetry to Carmen Aguirre, a graduate of Studio 58, coming back to direct a production of her own The Refugee Hotel, a play based on her family’s arrival in Vancouver as refugees from Chile in 1974. Aguirre calls it “a dark comedy,” and that it is, with references to torture and suicide and yet happy endings of a sort.
The play is set in a hotel on Denman Street, a temporary stopover for Chilean refugees who landed in Vancouver after Augusto Pinochet’s military coup sent supporters of assassinated President Salvador Allende into exile. Among them are a family of four, one of whom, 8-year-old daughter Manuelita (Krista Swarok), serves as a surrogate for Aguirre herself. At both the beginning and end of the play, adult Manuelita tells the audience, “It takes courage to remember. It takes courage to forget. It takes a hero to do both.” The play shows us the courage and sometimes heroism of the hotel’s reluctant inhabitants.
The parents, Flaca (an excellent Elizabeth Barrett) and fat Jorge (Logan Fenske), were both tortured in Pinochet’s prisons, Flaca because of her revolutionary activities, Jorge despite his having been uninvolved. Flaca remains adamant and angry while Jorge awakes screaming from his nightmares and can’t talk about his experiences.
The family is gradually joined by others: an angry indigenous woman, Cristina (Alina Blackett), whose parents were murdered; a traumatized woman, Isabel (Lisa Baran), who refuses to speak; Manuel (Mason Temple), who had been so badly tortured he may never recover; and Juan (Joshua Chambers), a railway worker whose union activities got him into trouble. We also meet Manuelita’s 10-year-old brother Joselito (Teo Saefkow), who’s comically bored by all the political talk but ultimately can’t forgive his parents for getting arrested.
Along with the anger, painful memories and political arguments, friendships emerge among the refugees, and love affairs. Two of them try to commit suicide, but Aguirre’s insistence on dark comedy rather than tragedy shows most clearly when one of the would-be suicides sticks her head in an oven—an electric oven—with singed hair rather than death as the outcome.
Another important element of the play, besides the resilience of the refugees, is the positive presentation of the Canadians—the gringos—who welcome them. Jackie (Julien Galipeau), the hotel’s receptionist, looks like he’s going to be an unsympathetic old grouch, and the social worker Pat (Emily Doreen Wilson) is a motormouth who shouts her English-French-Spanish at the uncomprehending Chileans. Both turn out to be openhearted, empathetic and helpful. Same with Bill (David Johnston), the hippie who at first looks like a caricatured would-be do-gooder but turns out to be pragmatic and genuine in his ability to help the refugees.
Aguirre uses a clever convention to indicate which language characters are speaking: the Anglophones, when speaking English, speak without accents; the Chileans, when speaking Spanish, also speak unaccented English. But when the English speakers attempt Spanish and vice versa, we hear the accents and the mangled Spanglish, and it’s often very funny.
One performer, Matthias Falvai, dances the traditional Chilean Cueca in traditional formal garb. He appears amid the other characters as what seems to be the spirit of the nation and its people, alive and well—though sometimes angry and in pain—even in exile.
The Refugee Hotel is a timely play, for obvious reasons, and there’s a lot about it to like. It’s clearly a stretch for many of these students—but that’s exactly the kind of work student actors should be exposed to. And it’s a great reminder to those of us who grumble about our own governments and about those would-be refugees “taking advantage” and “jumping the queue” to remember just how fortunate we are and just how awful those refugees’ stories might be.
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