Is the plight of the refugee indeed our own plight — searching for a home and an identity in a cold world?
The Moving Company threads that notion throughout “Refugia,” a world premiere that opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater. The troupe’s most ambitious work since it rose from the ashes of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, “Refugia” stitches nine scenes into a pageant of dispossessed souls bent on survival and purpose.
In style, it is a patchwork of buffoonery and broad comedy, earnest scenes of realism, songs and dance, stylized pantomime. Director Dominique Serrand and actors Nathan Keepers and Steven Epp are credited as writers.
The most successful pieces of this quilt focus on people affected by the Syrian civil war. A mother and father in Marseille, France (Rendah Heywood and Orlando Pabotoy), lament their son’s disappearance into the black hole of ISIS (a talky scene full of exposition but with a real human dilemma) and later the father confronts the young man (Jamal Abdunnasir), who has defected after living with the brutal realities of terrorism.
This story mixes with scenes of Kurdish women seeking safe passage from a camp to the Greek islands and then on to Berlin. Particularly effective in chilling us with an edgy sense of survival is the shattering roar of military jets flying overhead (Scott Edwards’ sound design).
Two other scenes have a quiet, literate poignancy. Dancer Kendra “Vie Boheme” Dennard cavorts with a polar bear, lifting the old boy on her back as the two try to survive a climate that is pushing them to the margins. In another, Keepers and Christina Baldwin are a composer-and-singer couple seeking to leave 1957 Soviet Russia for Israel. Keepers spins out a poetic monologue on tintinnabulist musical theory while Baldwin sings and Epp’s blunt Soviet apparatchik supervises troops who tear apart luggage filled with reams of music.
Less effective is the show’s sprawling last scene, a wandering narrative that pushes the evening to nearly three hours. Epp is a rootless man searching a public library for information on his heritage. His query sets off a long spiral down the rabbit hole, full of high jinks and physical tricks before finding a way back to the essential common roots of humanity and the resilience of society to adapt to difference.
It is a noble message and to the degree that Keepers, Baldwin and Epp are so skilled at their craft, it is enjoyable to watch. But a line from the Soviet scene kept banging in my head as we meandered toward a distant resolution: “Without discipline, freedom is dangerous.” That is to say, fun is fun, but might less of this stuff be so much more?
The Moving Company certainly benefits from the Guthrie’s resources at hand. Riccardo Hernández designed essentially a large pole barn of corrugated steel and Marcus Dilliard’s lighting scheme plays off that cold, metallic atmosphere. The sum gives “Refugia” something to say about our brittle, fragile world.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.