Juan Carlos Velis, Beatriz Pizano and Leanna Brodie (left to right). Photo by Itai Erdal
THE REFUGEE HOTEL written and directed by Carmen Aguirre (Alameda Theatre/Theatre Passe Muraille). At Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). To October 4, Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$32. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNN
In The Refugee Hotel, Carmen Aguirre lays bare the passions and heartaches of Chileans forced to flee a 1973 military coup. The result is a moving, often engrossing production that marks the mainstage premiere of Alameda Theatre.
Set in the Vancouver hotel housing the newly arrived Chileans, the play paints rich portraits of eight refugees - some tortured, some fearful, all defiant - who spend a week there sorting out their past and their future.
Focusing on Fat Jorge, his wife Flaca and their young children Manuelita and Joselito, Aguirre shows the tense demands that arise from political arguments, love and conflicting ideologies. Flaca is a Marxist, committed with her entire being; Jorge is devoted more to revolutionary theory and knee-jerk reactions. He carries a secret that not only causes haunting nightmares but also isolates him from Flaca.
Played out on Trevor Schwellnus's period, multilevel set, lit suggestively by Itai Erdal, the drama reaches beyond the family as characters argue vehemently about their situation yet realize they're linked by a common experience. Added to the mix are class struggle, racial divisions and sexual stress. Moments of human comedy leaven the seriousness of their situation.
Director Aguirre's drawn many fine performances from the large cast, including Terrence Bryant's fey hotel receptionist, who's pulled into the emotions of the Chileans; Leanna Brodie as a social worker who tries way too hard to make the newcomers feel comfortable; Salvatore Antonio as a young torture victim; Michael Scholar Jr as a high-energy Chilean prisoner who finds a lucky means of escape; and Paloma Nuñez as a mute refugee, eloquent in her silence.
Not all the elements work: Paula Rivera and Osvaldo Sepulveda aren't entirely convincing as the youngsters, though Rivera makes an impact as the grown-up Manuelita.
Still, the show has a firm anchor in the resonant performances of Juan Carlos Velis and Beatriz Pizano as Jorge and Flaca, he focused on the family and she on larger causes. The warmth between them as well as the complexity and sometimes contradictory nature of their relationship gives The Refugee Hotel its beating heart.
This is a production to catch, not just for its theatrical strengths and insights into an important historic event, but also because it puts Canadian Latin American artists centre stage. It's a triumphant debut for Alameda Theatre.