The Refugees, written and directed by Stephen Kaliski, treads an odd path to shine light on the worldwide problem of vast numbers of people moving from the trials and tribulations of their homelands to nations that will—hopefully—take them in and allow them to prosper.
Kaliski attempts a clever conceit marrying The Oresteia characters to the modern tragic story of the homeless hordes. Does The Oresteia provide an effective jumping off point to explore this timely and heartbreaking issue?
Sadly, the answer is no. Kaliski has written a play whose subject matter is only tangentially connected to the characters Orestes, Electra and Clytemnestra who, in Greek mythology, lived in ancient Argos.
Their stories of patricide and matricide and other ‘cides have no connection—emotional or situational—to the problem at hand and Kaliski doesn’t try very hard to splice the two subject matters together.
Orestes (Jonathan Nathaniel Dingle-El, playing indecision beautifully), his sister Electra (Carolina Đỗ, going from desultory to active with finesse) and Orestes’ pal/lover Pylades (Matt Mastromatteo, solid) only tangentially refer to their Ancient Greek tragedies. Instead, these three entreat Clytemnestra (Rachel McPhee, impressively and coolly regal) to help solve the mounting problem of the influx of victims of war with not the slightest, passing reference to their own intra-family turbulent biographies.
Add to this mix of characters the Mercury-like Messenger (a droll Robert K. Benson on rollerskates!), a Greek chorus in the form of the observant Nurse (Valerie Clayman Pye, a calm, an all-knowing presence amidst all the elevated emotions) and five Refugees (Josue Guerrero, Lily Hilden, Suzanne Lenz, Jeremiah Maestas and Grace Zito) and the artfully motley cast is complete.
Refugees begins with the Refugee chorus begging a clearly depressed Electra to help them as the Nurse provides her with healthy food. The Refugees—people of Athens, Minoa and Thrace—complain about wretched conditions.
Pye’s Nurse is a sardonic presence, seemingly obediently serving but hating every moment of it. She floats through the play observing and commenting as if she were the playwright’s conscience.
Kaliski does resort to a gimmick that really wasn’t necessary. As the audience members enter the theater, little pieces of paper and a pencil are on each seat. Each audience member was asked to write a haiku poem. Some of these are used later in the show, read as peace offerings to royalty from “the wretched refuse”—to no avail it turns out.
This gimmick doesn’t mean that Kaliski isn’t a good playwright. He understands how to shape the play and how to clearly present his characters via dialogue and action. The conversations between the clueless and cruel Clytemnestra and her neurasthenic daughter Electra are fine examples of verbal parrying. The Refugees are given eloquent, even poetic lines as they circulate about expressing their pain. Orestes and his boyfriend banter in loving ways, finally getting Clytemnestra’s royal permission to marry.
Co-directed with Matt Mastromatteo, he and Kaliski and should also be considered choreographers of the show for the way they turns the five-member chorus of Refugees into the masses by clever staging.
The costumes, quietly elegant for the royals and bedraggled for the others, are by Kahei Shum. The lighting, which turns an under-furnished stage into a number of discrete playing areas, is by Kaylin Gess.
The scenery, designed by Anita Tripathi, doesn’t conjure any particular period, but when a plastic curtain is pulled back, a rear wall covered in moving images is revealed.
The Refugees does its best to illuminate the growing problem of sanctuary seekers and is, of course, quite timely. The basic format may be clumsy, but the playwright understands and is sympathetic to the downtrodden of the world.
The Refugees (through June 26, 2022)
Jeffrey & Paula Bural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.eventbrite.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission