The Refugee Hotel
Written and directed
by Carmen Aguirre
An Alameda Theatre production
At Theatre Passe Muraille
The Refugee Hotel is the kind of show that crops up once or twice a season and plunges a critic into a pit of self-loathing and despair. There's nothing fun about telling an artist with an impressive life story and impeccable intentions that her earnest play doesn't work.
Carmen Aguirre's The Refugee Hotel is based on the Vancouver writer's own experiences arriving in Canada with her parents after the 1973 military coup that toppled the government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
Jorge (Juan Carlos Velis) and Flaca (Beatriz Pizano) are lucky enough to escape with their two children, one of whom (Paula Rivera) narrates the play but has little to do in it. They have landed in Vancouver, where an overeager social worker (Leanna Brodie) - who, annoyingly and unbelievably, speaks to the new Canadians loudly in a mix of French and English - places them in a dingy hotel.
Jorge is an anarchist accountant who believes in peaceful resistance, while Flaca is a Marxist professor who was secretly active in armed struggle. Both were captured and tortured, and are now trying to regain physical and emotional intimacy after their separate ordeals.
Unfortunately, as writer and as director, Aguirre doesn't make this central relationship seem like more than a juxtaposition of contrasting rhetoric, and Velis and Pizano leave us unconvinced that their characters ever had a well-matched marriage.
While the other refugee residents in the hotel are less developed, their relationships are more affecting. Salvatore Antonio gives a moving performance as Manuel, a shattered survivor of particularly brutal torture whose spirit is resurrected by the love of a good woman (Cheri Maracle).
The less-fraught courtship of Juan (Michael Scholar Jr.) and Isabel (Paloma Nunez) is perfunctory but cute.
But the tone of The Refugee Hotel feels as displaced as its characters; it never settles comfortably. One moment, the hotel residents are enduring horrific, communal torture flashbacks (accompanied, oddly, by traditional cueca dancing) and the next a pair of suicide attempts are being played for laughs.
Aguirre has done her play no favours by directing the show herself. It is simply amateurish when, for instance, characters hear and look at each other through walls.
Trevor Schwellnus's set, meanwhile, blithely ignores the awkward realities of Theatre Passe Muraille's interior. If he wants a bedroom in a certain spot, he'll put it over there even if two support poles are going to cut through the centre of it and make it look like a strip-club stage.
Aguirre lived what she is writing about - as did many of her Latin-Canadian cast members - and that lends The Refugee Hotel real authenticity.
But, unfortunately, the real-life drama gets buried in dramatic cliché. There's a silent girl who you know will eventually speak, to everyone's amazement; a scene where, one by one, the characters step to the front of the stage and raise their fists in solidarity; and an ending where the cast poses for a group snapshot and then freezes while a Where-Are-They-Now epilogue is delivered.
The cringe-worthiness reaches its apex, however, with the mincing, gay hotel receptionist (Terrence Bryant). Not only does this jaw-droppingly un-ironic stereotype sing The Man I Love while vacuuming, he briefly breaks into the Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend routine from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In my head, I was booing. But a sad boo.
The Refugee Hotel runs in Toronto until Oct. 4.