Take a chance on Village Theatre’s ‘Take Me America’
September 20, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
The last day in a toilsome asylum process, a long march from morning to 5 o’clock, is the backdrop for “Take Me America” — a challenging and spirited original musical on stage at Village Theatre.
“Take Me America” inserts audiences into tales from refugees seeking political asylum in the United States — a multiethnic group from different continents and geopolitical hotspots — and the government agents assigned to grant or deny asylum based only on impersonal paperwork and fleeting interviews.
Before the musical opens, a blank U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum application is projected on stage. The form is a reminder to audiences about the agents’ detached and emotionless role in a heated — and arbitrary — process.
Only as “Take Me America” unfolds do audience members come to understand the emotional toll the agents pay. The asylum applicants, meanwhile, plead and, in some cases, manipulate the agents in desperate attempts to slip through the gates.
The agents, mired in insecurities and self-doubt, do not inspire confidence as centurions guarding Fortress America.
Aaron Finley, last seen in Village Theatre’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a brooding Judas and a luminescent Jesus, appears in a single role in “Take Me America” as Gary, a naïve agent still settling into the job.
Dennis Bateman, as Michael, and Leslie Law, as Marsha, star as the other asylum agents. The duo acts as surrogate parents to Gary in some scenes and, in others, offers competing messages, like a stern devil on one shoulder and a compassionate angel on the other.
“Do the human thing,” Marsha urges Gary as Michael intones, “By the book, kid.”
The agents arrive on stage as white as Wonder Bread and, in Gary’s case, just as wholesome. Finley, appearing trimmer and more confident after the “Jesus Christ Superstar” run, is a powerhouse delivering depth and humanity in the role.
If you go
‘Take Me America’
“Take Me America” is set late in the last decade and, although terrorism is referenced, possible threats serve only as a minor plot device in the show. Concerns about radical Islam color the agents’ reactions to the Muslim characters in the musical, Asif — Eric Polani Jensen as a fisherman from Gaza — and Zara — Iris Elton as a pregnant political activist from Algeria.
The other applicants — Ekello Harrid Jr. as a Dinka fleeing Sudan and Heather Apellanes Gonio as a woman seeking refuge from violence in El Salvador — offer similar stories about government-sanctioned torment. J Reese is Jean, a gay — but “not gay enough” — applicant from Haiti.
Ben Gonio is incendiary as Wu, a poet from China persecuted for questioning government policies in verse. Diana Huey shines as Fan, a doting-but-desperate wife eager to escape from China to protect Wu.
Only Wu and Fan create a lasting impression among the applicants, perhaps by design.
Director Jerry Dixon offers a straightforward staging during a rapid, intermissionless 90 minutes.
The pop-rock score is pleasant, aside from a listless number Asif sings about surfing on the Gaza coast.
The genius set in “Take Me America” is built around filing cabinets scaled to monument size. The façade, faceless and gray, recalls a soulless bureaucracy from Orwell or Kafka.
The piece creates drama from a bland, bureaucratic landscape and serves a more practical purpose as a backdrop for projected images — a savanna, a river and, in a hackneyed sequence at the end, a U.S. flag and the Statue of Liberty.
The difference between asylum and immigration is night and day, although “Take Me America” needs to include additional language to beef up the line separating asylum for political reasons and immigration for economic gain.
The foundation for “Take Me America” is “Well Founded Fear” — a 2000 documentary about asylum. The material seems more suited to PBS than Playbill — and, indeed, the transition from screen to stage is not all smooth — although author-lyricist Bill Nabel, composer Bob Christianson, and a capable cast and creative team at Village Theatre present a formidable case for the show.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.