By Carmen Aguirre. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. An Electric Company Theatre production, in association with Playwrights Theatre Centre. A PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday, February 6. Continues until February 15
The name of Carmen Aguirre’s latest play, Anywhere but Here, conjures up a multitude of interpretations: is it a framing of perspectives of those who traverse the borderlands of its story, or a critique of opponents to migration? For a work that explores the porousness of time, space, memory, and movement, it’s an aptly versatile title that prepares viewers for a uniquely faceted experience, sprawling in its historic scope and significance.
In 1979, tired of life in exile and spurred by his wife’s adultery, Manuel (Nadeem Phillip), a socialist revolutionary and father of two, decides to drive back to his native Chile from Canada with daughters Lupe (AJ Simmons) and Carolita (Alexandra Lainfiesta). As they approach the U.S.–Mexico border, the Sonoran Desert they pass through becomes untethered from reality, resulting in surprising encounters with spiritual figures and other nomads through time. Meanwhile, Laura (Christine Quintana), alarmed that Manuel has absconded with their children, races after them in hopes of reconciliation. Amid this chase, disparate characters are united by geography along the way, from a Honduran migrant to a truant factory worker, to the Virgen del Carmen and historic Gen. Juana Azurduy de Padilla (both played by Michelle Rios).
Aguirre’s think piece is a time-defying meditation on essential journeys of the heart, as externalized by taxing travels. Manuel and Laura’s strife induces self-doubt and questioning, which likewise clouds their children’s notion of home. In the same desert, a factory employee from 1996, escaping persecution for attempting unionization, faces deep reflection on justice, just as an embassy worker from 1973, providing aid against diplomatic policy, also knows the status quo must be sacrificed for meaningful action. For all the granular differences between these individuals, a courage of compassion bleeds through: Azurduy de Padilla gladly trades her uniform for the factory worker’s rags, Carolita comforts a vigilante border watcher and a parched migrant, and the Virgen del Carmen extends a message of belonging.
Director Juliette Carrillo unpacks a dense narrative through choice transitions and blocking that maximizes scenic designer Christopher Acebo’s sand-swept set. Spotlights lift characters out of dimmed surroundings for terse monologues, while actors mime slow-motion in transitions, remaining on-stage until attention reverts to them. Realistic elements of Acebo’s set, like a mountainous backdrop, mesh with stylized components, such as a free-standing ladder that becomes a border wall, or two benches that stand in for the family car. A company of nine delivers tiptop performances in this space, clad in Carmen Alatorre’s era-spanning costumes. Musician Shad pens original raps with Aguirre, and tunes from the likes of Barry White and McFadden & Whitehead complement.
While audiences may not grasp every aspect of the show if they aren’t bilingual in English and Spanish or don’t possess the historical knowledge that lays the work’s foundation, Anywhere but Here is unmistakably a seminal Latinx production that shines a light on the ongoing struggles of migration and its many unspoken stories.