No man's land: 'Refugia' travels through time without borders

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

When Joseph Haj became the Guthrie Theater’s artistic director, he wasted no time booking a major project with the Moving Company. Having previously worked with Dominique Serrand and his collaborators, Haj was excited to invite them to create a mainstage production at the theater. The result, Refugia, is the local artists’ highest-profile Minnesota show since the 2008 dissolution of their company, Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

Guthrie Theater

Serrand is credited as director and, with Steven Epp and Nathan Keepers, co-writer of the piece, which sees the Moving Company leaders collaborating with a diverse cast of performers. It’s a sprawling play — or, as the company prefers to call it, an “epic journey” — that crosses continents and mixes styles as it examines lives in forced transit.

Refugia tells a series of stories, some literal and some symbolic, some with interlinked plots and others that are just thematically related. There are even nods to previous Moving Company shows, for the benefit of loyal fans.

The most extended narrative concerns a multiethnic present-day French couple (Orlando Pabotoy and Rendah Heywood) whose son (Jamal Abdunnasir) goes off to fight in the Syrian civil war. When the father goes to locate the son, the men find themselves in the same boat as a group of Syrian refugees trying to escape to Germany. That journey recalls the plight of a musical mid-century couple (Keepers and Christina Baldwin) whose ability to escape Russia may depend on how effectively they can explain 12-tone composition to a Soviet officer (Epp).

We also meet a young girl (Maia Hernandez and Carolina Sierra, in alternate performances) trapped in a detention center on the U.S.-Mexico border, and a polar bear locked in a sort of death-dance with ensemble member Kendra “Vie Boheme” Dennard as global warming bakes them both. The show begins and ends with Epp portraying an elderly man who’s about to make that most permanent of emigrations; in an extended sequence of clowning, Keepers plays a wacky librarian who helps Epp research his itinerant ancestors.

Refugia is a play of big ideas — so big that the ideas pull the focus up and away from the characters themselves. The result is a symphony of sentiment, more effective in exploring the state of refuge-seeking as a permanent human condition than in examining the particular circumstances of actual refugees. There’s no doubt where the show’s sympathies lie, but it may nonetheless frustrate viewers who want full-throated outrage instead of existential angst.

The piece is often gorgeous. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernández has filled the McGuire Proscenium Stage with a giant warehouse whose corrugated metal walls reflect the changing hues of Marcus Dillard’s elegiac lighting. Baldwin and the ensemble often sing, animating scenes that include the most heartfelt defense of avant-garde composition you’re ever likely to hear. It’s a sad, elegant argument that aesthetic borders are just as artificial as political ones.


Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through June 11