The Horrors of a Refugee Crisis Come to the Eastside of L.A.

Andres Velez, left, Cynthia Callejas, Peter Mark, Jonathan Bangs, Emilio Garcia-Sanchez, Jazmen-Bleu Gutierrez and Moriah Martel (foreground) as refugees in Marissa Chibas' ShelterEXPAND
Andres Velez, left, Cynthia Callejas, Peter Mark, Jonathan Bangs, Emilio Garcia-Sanchez, Jazmen-Bleu Gutierrez and Moriah Martel (foreground) as refugees in Marissa Chibas' Shelter
Photo by Steven Gunther

It was supposed to be a grand, visually stylized, outdoor stage spectacle befitting the urgency and epic scale of the human suffering it means to theatricalize — the perilous mass exodus of U.S.-bound child refugees fleeing the savage gang and drug cartel violence that has given Central America the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world.

Then the weekend rains came, forcing another kind of migration: Director Martín Acosta’s kaleidoscopic production of Shelter, playwright Marissa Chibas’ affecting and politically trenchant tapestry of all-too-real horrors, switched to Plan B and transferred from Lincoln Park’s sodden, open-air sandlot into the dry safety of the nearby Plaza de la Raza community arts center in a pared-down “suitcase staging.”

It’s hard to imagine that the indoor Shelter lost anything to the weather; the compelling power of Chibas’ oddly hopeful tale and the tautly riveting invention of Acosta’s dynamic movement-based staging could hardly be more on point or movingly intact.

The cast of ShelterEXPAND
The cast of Shelter
Photo by Steven Gunther

In its spirit and purpose, Shelter is perhaps most reminiscent of Gregory Nava’s 1983 film El Norte, which similarly strove to put a fully human face on immigrants then fleeing the violence perpetrated by U.S.-backed death squads in Guatemala. And Chibas’ script duly notes the haunting parallels between — and the American ownership of — the Reagan-era calamity and today’s narcotráfico-driven upheavals. But that’s where the resemblance ends.

Chibas’ real coup is in her portraiture. Where Nava’s idealized pair of sweetly innocent village teens was an exercise in fairy tale–like otherness, the characters in Shelter’s sharply sketched collage (vividly played by Cynthia Callejas, Peter Mark, Moriah Martel, Jonathan Bangs, Jazmen-Bleu Gutierrez, Emilio Garcia-Sanchez and Andrez Velez) are notable for the disarming, everyday sameness of their aspirations to those of any American adolescent living in Sherman Oaks or Highland Park.

Divided into four “chapters,” the show’s first half chronicles the literally murderous journey up the spine of Mexico, much of it spent illegally riding atop boxcars on a 1,450-mile migrant network of freight trains called “La Bestia.” It’s a hazard-filled ride in which the likelihood of being killed or maimed is only part of the route’s nightmarish gauntlet of kidnappings, homicides, disappearances, sexual violence and human trafficking. The second half details the detentions and uncertainties that the refugees face on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Refugees in the belly of La BestiaEXPAND
Refugees in the belly of La Bestia
Photo by Steven Gunther

Acosta seizes on La Bestia and its deadly freight cars as a central motif throughout the evening, employing scenic designer Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s simple wooden soapboxes (Delgadillo has also designed a full-scaled boxcar for the open-air version), classroom-style chairs and packing cartons in continual reconfigurations of the train. An opening sequence that introduces La Bestia features the ensemble on top of the soapboxes, using them like clogs in a kind of ominously percussive stomp (choreographed by Fernando Belo). The dance fluidly segues into a harrowing slow-motion pantomime (intensified by Sam Sewell’s unnerving, guttural sound design) of the violence and gruesome accidents that are commonplace.

That horror finds its counterpoint in the almost heartbreakingly offhand way in which the teens shrug off the traumas as they playfully recount their adventures — side by side with youthful campfire fright stories — in wayside refuges. In a chapter titled “The Shelter,” a beaming Jonathan Bangs delivers an astonishing profile in courage as a 17-year-old Sudanese boy whose odyssey to rejoin his family in America spans two continents and includes the drowning of his twin sister, but who joyfully proclaims his victory from inside an ICE detention center as “everything my family hoped for.”

The critic Georg Lukács argued that naturalism can only describe, whereas the political drama "narrates" the causal connections. By the time Shelter reaches its finale — in a sort of PTSD-like fever dream set to the evocative wheezing and rumble of distant machinery — Chibas and Acosta stirringly connect the dots of the crisis in a way never imagined by El Norte. La Bestia is finally revealed as our monstrous indifference to yet another humanitarian tragedy of our own making.

CalArts Center for New Performance at Lincoln Park, approx. 3560 N. Mission Road (at Alta Street), Lincoln Heights; through April 17. centerfornewperformance.org.

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