The Refugee Hotel Has U.S. Premiere at UCI

By: Stephanie Osborne

Carmen Aguirre’s “The Refugee Hotel” had its first U.S. showing at UC Irvine’s Robert Cohen Theater on April 27. The emotional comedy with an ensemble cast playing Chilean refugees escaping the 1973 Chilean coup d’état brings numerous stories of people of color to the stage. “The Refugee Hotel” is one of the first plays to positively represent Chileans and their struggles from the 20th century to present day. Families, lovers, teenagers, and adults have all been affected by the coup in Chile, and now must adjust to new lives and trauma thousands of miles away from their homeland.

Photo by Paul R. Kennedy

UCI is privileged to be able to bring the play to the United States for the first time with direct assistance from the playwright. Aguirre spent four days with the cast and director Juliette Carrillo, researching, sharing anecdotes about her life as a refugee, and adding a few lines to the script to make sense of some details for an American audience. Most of the cast embodied their characters, giving them lives beyond the traumas and coping methods of alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, and muteness. They turn their pain into laughter, supporting their families of blood and nationality.

Many of the characters have strong performances, but a few of the most notable are Fat Jorge- Amilcar Jauregul,  Flaca- Maya Louise Smoot, Bill O’Neil- Jesse Bourque, and Manuel/Condor Passes- Graco Hernandez, since they hit the ground running with their portrayals. Fat Jorge and Flaca are parents who have been torn apart because of their government, beliefs of revolution, Jorge’s alcoholism and Flaca’s PTSD from sexual mutilation she endured while in prison. Both actors kept their characters’ opposing political stances and the love that they shared clear throughout the play. Their chemistry felt natural; they were a couple who loved each other very much, but the coup and trauma tore them apart. Bill O’Neil speaks in the way that a brain translates a foreign language, very literal and out of order. Manuel/Condor Passes is the representation of survivors’ guilt: he’s happy to be alive, but the realization of all the people who are losing their lives eats him up and brings him to the edge of the hotel’s roof. “We come from the dirt, and when we die, we go back to the dirt,” Manuel finishes his monologue before attempting suicide.

Photo by Paul R. Kennedy

The play opens and closes with projections of real footage and photographs of the struggle in Chile, as well as photographs of various refugees that have gone to stay at a hotel in Canada. Upon walking into the black box theater, one is transported to the 1970s via the impeccable set with lava lamps, shag carpet, rabbit-eared television, and wood wall paneling. At first, the set did not seem fit for a black box theater, but as the play progressed, the dark atmosphere and shadows played an important role in successfully setting the tone of certain scenes. Fat Jorge has recurring nightmares that are enhanced with different and surreal lighting effects.

The Refugee Hotel is a beautifully designed, well-directed and acted play, but it is not without flaws. Some characters are a slow build, nearly to the point of being flat characters. Isabel/Calladita (Caroline Elizabeth Jones) plays a vocally challenged refugee who does not find her voice until the end of the play. While she does have scenes where her character shines through body language and physical comedy, they are few and far between. Manuelita (Crystal Kim) felt like a forced and inauthentic character. She is meant to be a bridge between the present, the past, and the playwright, but falls short of accomplishing all three. Being portrayed by someone of non-Hispanic descent did not help her characterization either, since Kim’s Spanish was formal with a heavy American accent. While there are other characters portrayed by non-Hispanic actors, Manuelita (Kim) has a large role, if not the main one, placing more focus on her.

Overall,  the show’s opening night was emotionally charged with well-timed comic relief and was met with a nearly full house. Followed by a Q&A with playwright Carmen Aguirre herself, the cast, and Carrillo, it was an experience to see and learn of stories that are not often told, even on stage. The characters not only build bonds with each other in the hotel, but with the audience, too. We are part of their struggles, ranging from language barriers to night terrors. “The Refugee Hotel” is a must-see play, even if one does not have roots in Chile or Canada. The human condition is what brings us together in this show.