From October 26th to November 13th, 2016, Teesri Duniya Theatre launches its artistic season with award-winning playwright Carmen Aguirre’s The Refugee Hotel at the Segal Centre Studio. Directed by Paulina Abarca-Cantin, this dark comedy chronicles the true story of hundreds of thousands of Chilean asylum-seekers who fled the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and resettled across Canada – a timely production in light of the current Syrian crisis.
It’s February 1974 – five months after the Chilean coup d’état – and another family with no return ticket unceremoniously passes through customs at Montreal-Dorval International Airport.
Jorge (Pablo Diconca) and Flaca (Gilda Monreal) and their two children Joselito (Juan Grey) and Manuelita (Mariana Tayler) – also the play’s narrator – are the latest Chilean refugees to find sanctuary in Canada. Having just escaped their nation’s atrocious series of watershed events, their life in exile begins upon being escorted to a dingy hotel by an eager social worker, Pat (Sally Singal), where they are then welcomed to settle into their temporary home by a chipper receptionist, Jackie (Craig Francis). Despite well-intended attempts, the two non Spanish-speaking gringos are unable to communicate with the four incomers – a recurring humorous affair in The Refugee Hotel – who as unilingual foreigners are often left to their own devices to explore and discover the workings of the strange world around them.
Once deafened by sounds of sirens, engines, and, explosions, Flaca and Jorge are now met by the chilling silence of a harsh, unfamiliar winter and questions of the past, present, and future left unanswered. Victims of persecution, imprisonment, interrogation, torture and mutilation, they find hope in their new haven for their family, but she, a Marxist professor, remains tormented by a sense of duty while he, an anarchist accountant, steeps in the guilt of betrayal and of not living up to his wife’s standards of political idealism. At war with their own consciences, the secrets they keep are now what separates them and threatens their love and livelihood.
Slowly but steadily, fresh batches of South American migrants also arrive at the hotel: Manuel, a brutally tortured concentration camp survivor (Braulio Elicer); Juan, a union man who left his girlfriend and escaped on a swedish ship (Ziad Ghanem); Christina, an orphaned woman whose parents disappeared (Shanti Gonzalez); and Calladita, a young nanny rendered mute by shock (Vera Wilson Valdez). They find solace and strength in their shared experiences of duress, coming together to cope with and tackle the challenges of the difficult journey that unfolds before them. While their individual stories faintly develop, they contribute with some of the more touching, believable moments in the execution of Aguirre’s script.
Teesri Duniya here upholds its commitment to produce, develop and present socially and politically relevant theatre: The Refugee Hotel is charged on both fronts, holding up to view the impact of a military government on a nation as well as another’s ability to provide support to those seeking protection. Also in continuity with its mandate to encourage community conversation and integration, the company has invited over 300 newly arrived Syrian refugees to watch the show as part of a program with the Canada Council for the Arts and Sun Life Financial and will hold a talkback after each performance. For these efforts, the play cannot be held at fault.
However, The Refugee Hotel, akin to its protagonists, is ridden with interrogation marks. Characterizations are stereotypical, certain jokes fail to make a firm landing, and plot lines are left dangling or come to hasty, unsatisfying resolutions (one of the attempted suicide scenes left us unmoved due to its near-nonchalant execution; the epilogue also rendered us passive). The performances are uneven among the diverse ensemble of eleven, leaving you wondering if it’s the characters or the actors who might be lost in translation and/or direction. Braulio Elicer is perhaps the standout in his unforgiving role as the traumatized Manuel. We would have also liked to have seen more of Charles Bender, whose powerful presence as the multilingual NGO activist-interpreter might have provided for some much-needed connective tissue for the piece or further developed the model of Canadian hospitality.
All considered, The Refugee Hotel, in speaking of the effects of war, has a most redeeming quality in its warm timbre. The stories herein told and portrayed are a testament to the human heart and a tribute to the carriers of physical and emotional baggage who have found healing in humour and hope. (As a landed immigrant in Canada, I, reviewer, profoundly relate to many elements of the narrative and humbly appreciate its optimistic, intrepid spirit – as clichéd as parts of it may have been).
Creating a balanced existence and identity for yourself in a new society is no laughable matter – even though smiling may be how you soberly get through the adjustment. How do you embrace change, complying and respecting local sociocultural norms, while still honouring your roots? From a polar perspective, what is the role of a community in receiving those who have been persecuted? These are the points the production prompts us to contemplate in thoughtful consideration of the current political climate and of the hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees worldwide.
Review by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon
The Refugee Hotel by Carmen Aguirre plays at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts Studio (5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, H3W 1M7) from October 26th to November 13th). Tickets are $18 – 26 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (514) 739-7944.
Running time: approximately 110 minutes including one 15 minute intermission
Performed in English with Spanish-language surtitles
For more information, visit www.teesriduniyatheatre.com.