Talk about timing. Just one day after President Donald Trump’s executive order barring entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations, a moving little show about immigration opened at the Guthrie Theater.
“Promise Land” is only obliquely political. Instead, with delicacy and subtle feeling, it illustrates the basic but lofty dreams that immigrants carry as they give up their homelands for a new life. It also evinces the perils that newcomers face as they navigate a new world where dangers lurk on the path to those dreams.
An 80-minute devised work by the St. Paul troupe Transatlantic Love Affair, “Promise Land” is built on the bones of the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” Siblings Josef (Avi Aharoni) and Sarah (Emily Michaels King) are starving in their home country. Their parents (Gregory Parks and Emily Madigan) send them off to America so they can have opportunities for the jobs that will better their lives. Josef and Sarah undertake an arduous weekslong journey across the ocean and wind up in a boardinghouse owned by a seemingly benevolent factory owner (Allison Witham) and run by a compulsive-obsessive overseer (Adelin Phelps).
All of this is vividly illustrated without props or costumes, as the nine actors on the bare stage of the Dowling Studio use their bodies to evoke everything from traveling on a steamship to working in a foundry. Moving in a supple lighting scheme designed by Michael Wangen and Mary Shabatura, the performers suggest things like the railings of a ship, the doors of a house or a rickety cart.
The cast is rounded out by Julia Gay, Peyton Dixon and Eric Marinus, who, like everyone except the siblings, play multiple roles.
Founded by Isabel Nelson and Diogo Lopes, the co-directors of this show, Transatlantic Love Affair has developed a distinct brand of elemental physical theater that uses mime and dance with a strong emphasis on storytelling. “Promise Land” will add to the reputation the troupe has built with such productions as “Ballad of the Pale Fisherman,” “Ash Land” and “Emilie/Eurydice.” The work is studded with affecting moments, from the siblings’ hunger as they gulp down a loaf of bread in the old country to their awe as they behold America for the first time from the ship.
Moments of wonder and sunshine are sometimes twinned with more haunting images. Cellist Emily Dantuma’s live score provides a reality check on the characters’ dreams, supplying an ominous, horror-flick-style undertow at times. That musical counterpoint also is present in the Eastern European folk songs, marked by jangly chords, that the ensemble delivers with hope and triumph.
The music and strong performances capture the contradictions of a nation built by those who came willingly as they fled bad circumstances, and by those who came against their will. All make up a wondrous mosaic whose stories are still being written.