It is a rare theatrical experience that can empty the heart with despair and then fill it back up with compassion.
I treasure drama like Refuge, the performance at Theo Ubique, a small cabaret theater in south Evanston. The show is intimate, so very human, contemporary, creative and lyrical.
The performance, which is in both English and Spanish, begins with the narrator singing to us that we might not understand the language all the time but “if we listen with our hearts,” we will understand everything.
She is right. For those bilingual, what a special dramatic opportunity. For those who are not, no Spanish is necessary.
The story is a heartbreaking look at a young female migrant getting caught by a Texas rancher as she tries to cross the border into the U.S. He is obligated to turn her in. What makes him change his mind and why we see him washing her blistered feet with his bare hands is the hopeful part of human connections.
However much the rancher wants to protect her, though, the border patrol tracker suspects the girl’s presence and calls in her catch. The tracker (Devon Carson) is a pregnant American-born Hispanic woman, taking on a job she has to justify by her own life necessities. Situations are very complicated at the border.
An ensemble of migrants, much like an imaginary chorus, sings out their feelings in Spanish. The music and their voices touch the soul, so much so that it’s perhaps better for English speakers not to understand the words.
Knowing what’s happening relies on two powerful marionettes, a dog and a wolf, manipulated in clear view by two actors (Juan Gonzalez Machain and Marcela Ossa Gomez) who almost seem invisible as they speak for their “real” characters.
The dog and the wolf talk to each other in English and, in the tradition of magical realism, their conversations are all we need to know about the struggle to cross the border and the attempts to keep people out.
The wolf, who eats whatever and whomever he finds dead in the desert, talks about survival and doing anything he needs to stay alive. The dog talks back to him about his love for his owners and his commitment to them, his steadfast loyalty to family. Their connection to each other is not clear until the end.
Who among the characters is a wolf and who is a dog and who is a mix is what we need to think about as we listen to the singing, not necessarily knowing the words. We don’t need to.
The cast is talented and so committed to the performance that some of them were crying at the end.
Tatiana Bustamante as the girl tells the story through her face. No need to know her words. Her expressions say everything.
Bill Kalinak (the rancher) shares his toughness and his vulnerability in both Spanish and English.
Laura Murillo Hart (lead musical) commands our emotions with her guitar and her lyrical lamentations.
The ensemble, a bedraggled group of migrants, might only be alive in our imaginations, but they are compelling in the telling of their stories.
The producers of Refuge say the play “weaves passionate and driving original music with the charm of artistic puppetry to share a bilingual tale of determination grit, and hope.” I would say their description is an understatement.
Refuge is a moving performance unlikely to be forgotten and surely not to be missed.
This Midwest premiere of Refuge plays though Nov. 13 at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard St. A pre-show meal from Taco Diablo can be ordered for an extra charge.
For tickets and information, visit www.theo-u.com or call 773-939-4101.