Members of the cast of the Electric Company Theatre production of Anywhere But Here. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Members of the cast of the Electric Company Theatre production of Anywhere But Here. Photo by Emily Cooper.

It is timely that Anywhere But Here makes its world premiere in Vancouver when stories about borders, divisions, partisan and profit-driven acts dominate news headlines. Carmen Aguirre’s epic play, about border walls and the human quest to find home, pays tribute to refugees who have died in their attempts to find a better life. It also explores whether that new life they seek is what they really want, relative to what they’ve left behind.

The theme muddies at times, with fragmented scenes and audibility problems. But Christopher Acebo’s provocative set, dramatically engaging all the senses at first sight, holds the key to appreciating the play’s complexities.

Acebo, assisted by Rick Anderson, has created a feast for both the eye and the intellect, with an undulating border that slices a dramatic Mexican desert landscape in two. Mirrors running the length of the border reflect the same sands and people on either side. Another border is drawn by a suspended dividing line on a projected freeway that leads from Canada through the United States to Chile. There’s a third border, in the shape of a ladder that reaches upward and divides the heavens from the earth beneath.

Another salute to the production’s intent comes during the second act when a shrine appears to honour those who have perished at the heavily guarded border. Another reflects that shrine in the foyer, where guests are invited to create tributes to those refugees, with various cut-outs, trinkets and relics of nature. Such inventive, interactive foyer activities are often employed by the Electric Company Theatre to engage the audience and clarify the intent of the director and playwright.

It is particularly helpful in this instance because, although Juliette Carrillo’s direction intrigues and delights at times, it can frustrate and confuse at others.

The story-line skips between timeframes, realities, memory, comedy and tragedy. It follows a Chilean/Canadian family divided as much by their emotional needs, as by the border between the countries that they hope will serve those needs.

Alen Dominguez in the Electric Company Theatre production of Anywhere But Here. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Alen Dominguez in the Electric Company Theatre production of Anywhere But Here. Photo by Emily Cooper.

The parents battle and separate while their two pre-pubescent daughters squabble and swear at each other, prodding the air with their middle fingers in a frustrated fight for supremacy.

Meanwhile, allegorical characters appear. A life-sized Monarch butterfly, the reincarnation of a previously deceased aunt, gloriously costumed by Carmen Alatorre and portrayed by Augusto Bitter, oversees the family when they encounter disaster. In one scene, the butterfly is joined by several others in a dance that’s enhanced by swirls of yellow and brown lights created by inspired lighting designer Itai Erdal. It is beautiful. The Virgin of Carmen, Patron Saint of Mestizos, also makes an ethereal appearance.

Alen Dominguez creates a powerfully moving moment when he sings a yearning Latinx solo, a capella. It is hard not to cry when Nadeem Phillip, playing the father of the two crazy quarrelling girls and husband to dissatisfied hippy Laura, joins in.

But each time the actors turn upstage or sideways to speak, they lose much of Aguirre’s biting dialogue, particularly in the first act. This may be due to Eli Haligua’s recorded soundscape, which accompanies much of the interaction. Were the actors miked to match the sound level, Carrillo’s choice to highlight reality in this way would not be so jeopardized. In the absence of mikes, some actors resort to shouting, which makes their speech harsh to the ear and difficult to understand. A simple and cheaper solution would be simply to turn down the volume of the soundscape. The drumming between the staccato scenes in the first act could be muted as well.

Once the volume issue is addressed, the action will be easier to follow, and this probing, bold production that provokes discourse and reflection will surely play to packed houses throughout its run.

Anywhere But Here by Carmen Aguirre. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. An Electric Company Theatre production in association with Playwright’s Theatre Centre and presented in partnership with the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. On stage at the Vancouver Playhouse (600 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until February 15. Visit electriccompanytheatre.com for tickets and information.