At the Unicorn Theatre, “Refuge” is a Moving, Musical, Magical Experience

Marisa B. Tejeda, Logan Black, Areli Gil, Manon Haliburton, Satya Chávez, and Jerry Mañan in “Refuge.” (Unicorn Theatre)

Refuge, the new play about borders, barriers, and American dreams currently in a rolling world-premiere at the Unicorn Theatre, is a complex blend of narrative, music, puppetry, and magical realism—powerful and poignant. It demands our attention, in more ways than one.

A talented cast of six drives the story forward in equal parts English and Spanish, and though billed as a “bilingual production,” it really is not: unless we are bilingual, we may not comprehend large swaths of the dialogue or lyrics—at least, not word for word. That is precisely the point, and only entices us to listen more closely. As co-creator Satya Chávez, who also co-directs with Cynthia Levin and performs the original music she composed, explains in a direct-to-audience appeal that opens the show: “If you can’t understand with your ears, then listen with your heart.”

Of course, Refuge also requires our attention for the compelling way it confronts the ongoing reality at the U.S.-Mexico border, cutting through the rhetoric and statistics that cloud our daily news coverage to offer a potent personal connection. The main narrative follows a teenage Honduran girl, separated from her fellow migrants in the desert expanse, who finds her way onto private property in the fictional (but aptly named) border town of Desolation, Texas. The rancher there initially confronts her with a shotgun and calls the border patrol, but—softened by the young woman’s dream to find her mother, somewhere in the U.S., and the memory of his own late daughter—allows the young woman to take refuge in his barn. The tension mounts when Martina, an eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant border agent friendly with the rancher, tracks the girl to his property, and grows suspicious in the face of his fumbling denials.

There’s a certain enchantment in watching the Girl (Areli Gil), who speaks only in Spanish, verbally joust with the Rancher (Logan Black), who understands her but responds primarily in English. Martina (Marisa B. Tejeda) brings some comic-relief and a dose of tortured reality: as a tracker, she is tasked with apprehending lost migrants, but also strives to save them from the deadly wilderness.

Of course, those are just the human characters—some of the most important arcs and dialogue belong to the rancher’s beloved dog, Steph, and the starving, sinister-eyed lobo (wolf) who scours the desert for whatever morsel—or human limb—he can find, occasionally taunting Steph from the other side of the perimeter fence. When the play’s climactic moment arrives, these two are centerstage.

Manon Haliburton, Logan Black, Jerry Mañan, and Areli Gil in “Refuge.” (Unicorn Theatre)

Ragged but expressive—indeed, so lifelike—Steph and Wolf are rendered exquisitely by Mike Horner and Matt Hawkins of What If Puppets. And in giving the creatures movement and voice, Manon Haliburton and Jerry Mañan merit the highest compliment that can be paid to any actor/puppeteer: you barely notice them. (Likewise for the moments when the cast animates other beings of the borderlands: a vulture, a python, a rat.)

Through it all, Chávez, who co-created the show with Andrew Rosendorf (translation by Marialuisa Burgos), serves as troubadour, keeping watch and responding with her guitar. As she interweaves each episode with beautiful song, other members of the chorus occasionally join in or offer spoken asides—indeed, the entire tale is recounted by the ensemble as though it were a desert legend, with a mystical, magical quality.

Which only heightens the drama of its subject matter, which is all too real. This play’s fascinating formula of music, story, and shared emotion is sure to start a conversation for anyone who experiences it—which is the first step toward finding a common language, and common ground.

“Refuge” runs through February 12 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or visit unicorntheatre.org.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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