Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Cookin'
Christopher Chen's play Passage poses that question. Inspired by E.M Forster's novel "A Passage to India," Chen imagines two nations, dubbed Country X and Country Y, with Country Y being the invaders who have overcome and taken charge of all aspects of life in Country X. Knowing Chen's source, one can easily assume that Country X is India and Country Y is Great Britain during the roughly two centuries in which India was a colony under the British thumb. Clearly, though, Chen intends to avoid drawing on a specific example and for his audience to consider this condition in the abstract, with the realization that it can be applied to host of contexts past, present and, undoubtedly, future.
Passage has been staged as a co-production of Exposed Brick Theatre and Pillsbury House + Theatre, companies that share an interest in exploring such topics as community, inclusion, equity and justice. It is co-directed by Exposed Brick Co-Artistic Director Suzy Messerole and Pillsbury House's Producing Artistic Director Signe Harriday, who bring forth and effectively meld the aesthetic and socio-political leanings of their respective companies. Unlike the premise imbedded in Passage, there is no domination of one party over the other, as the production is seamlessly made greater by the joining of its two producing partners.
Chen has not only abstracted the nations in his play, but also its characters, whose names are B, G, H M, F, Q, R, J, S and D. Actual names would have been easier for me and my companion to keep track of, but it avoids assigning any prior associations, including gender and race, with the characters, portrayed by a racially diverse cast and with no reference to gender–the pronoun "they" is used when one is needed.
B, G, H and M are indigenous to Country X. B is a physician practicing internal medicine and was recently recognized as the best in their nation, but still is subject to the sting of microaggressions inflicted by the Y dominators. H and M, B's friends, take different stances on the question of friendship with Y people. G appears as a priest-like figure, though they are referred to as "Professor," so their exact domain is unclear, though clearly G possesses a strong reservoir of wisdom that twines compassion and tolerance with the compulsion to survive and remain true to one's identity.
Early on we meet F and Q aboard a ship bound from their home in Y for X, where F will teach at the National School and Q will join their fiancé who has been stationed there. They hold naïve notions of what their experiences in X will be like, without realizing the degree to which, as Y people, their understanding of X people will be distorted by the privilege they hold–whether or not they seek it–over X people. Eventually, this leads B, F and Q into the darkness of a series of mysterious caves often visited by tourists, with the native B serving as guide.
Something bad happens in the darkness of the caves, with differing accounts issued by B and from Q. This scenario bears strong resemblance to events that take place in "A Passage to India." Q, being from Country Y and endowed with its privilege, has the upper hand and B is assumed to be the transgressor, with no effort to discern the truth.
The interplay among the characters and their constant awareness of whether they hail from X or Y is provocative and intriguing. Challenging arguments are made about the shared humanity of all people versus the unavoidable stain of national identities and unequal power among those nations. Can one have sympathy for the plight of an oppressor for bearing the consequence of their unsought oppression? Yet, the playwright makes it difficult to feel emotional connections to his character, partly due to the effort needed to remember which character is attached to each alphabet letter and partly because the play is almost all argument, with little emotive expression between people, be they X or Y, depicted. The closest we come is the beginning of what seems like a true friendship between B and F, a friendship that would provide an affirmative answer to the question of whether an X person can be friends with a Y person.
That relationship is bolstered by the luminescent performances of Oogie_Push as B, and Valencia Proctor as F. Both actors project a warmth and openness to one another that seem able to surmount their X and Y differences, though the actors also convey the sharp pain inflicted by the divide. Marisa B. Tejada, as Q, convincingly projects the distress of realizing that the fiancé whom they have followed halfway around the world has changed as a result of serving on the occupying side. Tejada shows how Q's desperate efforts to not be seen in the same light as their fiancé result in a series of nervous mis-steps undermining their effort to be free of the prejudice so rampant among the occupiers.
Other notable performances come from Aamera Siddiqui, as H, whose passionate arguments about the nature of inequality are cogent, even though the term "armchair activist," hurled at them by M, seems apt, and from Alex Barreto Hathaway as M, whose professions of common humanity among all people are put to a test.
Chen inserted two other characters into Passages: a mosquito and a gecko. Both serve as sardonic observers to whom other characters express thoughts and emotions. Why use creatures, a turn to magical realism, instead of simply allowing characters to express themselves in soliloquies? Perhaps it aims at the notion that these human beings bridge divides between themselves and other species yet allow damaging rifts to fester within the human race. In any event, the insertion of those characters is a jarring change of tone from the rest of the play. That said, Clay Man Soo is remarkable as the mosquito, and Antonio Rios-Luna excels as the gecko, both using their physicality to create sublime impressions.
Harriday and Messerole's co-direction is attentive to the small things that provoke change in the dynamics among characters, indicative of which reside in a place of power and which do not. Mina Kinukawa's spare scenic design works well, as platforms and other elements are moved to create the various setting, while a stunning fern-green orb appears to rise above the horizon, perhaps a new world arising, but never fully in its place in the sky. This orb is notably divided into sectors that graphically display the divisions in our world. This backdrop opens to reveal the caves' black, billowy interiors, a very effective staging device. Sonya Berlovitz's costumes are beautifully conceived, their likeness to south Asian garb reenforcing the association between Chen's play and Forster's novel. Mitchell Frazier's lighting design ably directs our attention both to places on the stage and to shifts in tone.
Passages is an intriguing play that challenges its audience to think beyond specific points in history to the never-ending chain of upheavals that leave one nation under the subjugation of another, and minority ethnic groups within a nation subjected to the whims of the dominant group. Such subjugation can seem relatively benign or devolve into ethnic cleansing and genocide–the degree of pain inflicted subject to the eye of the beholder. While the avoidance of place or personal names may be meant to make the story more universal, it allows it to veer into the territory of a polemic exercise.
There are weighty ideas embedded in Passages, and its narrative rife with human drama with the potential to be highly engaging. The playwright falls short in being able to fully accomplish both. Still, the urgency of its ideas and the artistry with which it has been realized by its directors, cast, and design team will offer ample reward to theatergoers.
Passage, a co-production by Exposed Brick Theatre and Pillsbury House + Theatre, continues through October 15, 2023, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org. Facial masks are required at Pillsbury House + Theatre.
Playwright: Christopher Chen; Directors: Signe Harriday and Suzy Messerole; Set Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Light Design: Mitchell Frazier; Prop Design: Stacey Schwebach; Fight/Movement Consultant: Aaron Preusee; Technical Director: Austin Stiers; Stage Manager: Lindsay R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Mayra Gurrola Calderón.
Cast: Alex Barreto Hathaway (M), Oogie_Push (B), Valencia Proctor (F), Antonio Rios-Luna (R/Gecko), Aamera Siddiqui (H), Clay Man Soo (J/Mosquito/S/D), Marisa B. Tejeda (Q), James A. Williams (G). Logo