Take a chance on Village Theatre’s ‘Take Me America’

September 20, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

The cast of asylum applicants in ‘Take Me America’ portrays people from war-torn nations and geopolitical hotspots around the globe. Photos By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

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’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Through Oct. 23
  • Show times vary
  • $22 to $62
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

“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 wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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2 Responses to “Take a chance on Village Theatre’s ‘Take Me America’”

  1. Whitney on October 3rd, 2011 11:52 am

    While I definitely agree with parts of this review- especially that “the material seems more suited to PBS than Playbill”- I think the writer left out a few key notes.

    First, there is no intermission. The show theme is admittedly heavy, and an intermission would probably help the audience recover from the weight of endless musical soliloquies. That being said, if the show did feature an intermission, many attendees might use the time to leave.

    The musical numbers, though relevant, are droning and depressing after the first few. Aside from only a few jokes, the show doesn’t offer enough respite for viewers who need a wider spectrum of emotions other than sorrow and anxiety.

    The dialogue at some points is sparse, and towards the end of the show only serves as a transition from one song to the next. This would make more sense if the characters hadn’t already experienced their asylum interviews within the first hour. There seems nothing else to discuss, almost as if the writer didn’t know how to fill the rest of the show.

    While the Musical is entitled, “Take Me, America,” one expects a bit more sub plot. The entire cast feels as if it meanders a bit after their characters and motivations are introduced, as there is nothing more for them to do. And trust me, that’s what the audience does. If you are waiting for more, there isn’t anything coming. In fact, you never leave the office setting that the Musical opens with.

    Aaron Finley, while extremely talented, brings nothing more to his character than is scripted. It feels as if the actor is expertly “going through the motions,” but fails to engage the audience. Talent aside, he was not meant for this part.

    The main couple seeking asylum, Wu and Fan, while both extremely talented, are the dramatic equivalent of a one-trick pony. They present sadness and desperation well, but the characters would be more relate-able to the audience if there was some glimmer of what they once were together. They feel unreachable in their sorrow.

    I left with about ten minutes to the final number. First, because I needed to use the restroom. Once I realized the doors to the theatre locked from the outside, I didn’t feel the need to get the house manager.

    I would love to see the Issaquah Press come right out and give an unfavorable review of a show like this. The Press does give glowing, extremely favorable reviews of Village Theatre shows quite frequently. I would expect the editorial integrity to do the opposite if a show is as bad as this, regardless of subject matter.

    While this show presents a sad topic, there’s got to be a better way to present it to audience members without making them feel completely depleted and weighed down with sadness by the time they leave.

    In short, don’t see this show.

  2. Jacqueline on November 5th, 2011 1:25 pm

    Well, thanks a lot. Four of us theater going friends, buy season tickets every year at the Everett Theatre. So your advice in short “Don’t See This Show” is not helpful. We’ve already bought season tickets. We’re stuck with them. And how can we review, or complain, if we don’t see it? Now I just feel like a fool for bothering.

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