Review: ‘Sanctuary City’ arrives at Interlochen
INTERLOCHEN, MI–“Theater is dead,” a playwright friend of mine said not too long into the pandemic. And for those of us who love live theater, it’s impossible not to wonder what it’s for anymore, what makes it relevant in a world in which it still feels risky to sit for hours in a crowded, enclosed room, particularly when there’s practically infinite access to streaming series’ and films both new and old.
The answer became clear while sitting in the audience of Interlochen Shakespeare Festival’s excellent production of Sanctuary City, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Martyna Majok’s 2020 piece whose Off-Broadway debut was interrupted by COVID shutdowns.
Set in Newark, New Jersey in the early 2000s, shortly after 9/11 and the introduction of the DREAM Act, the story focuses on two unnamed teenagers, both undocumented immigrants who, despite living the majority of their lives in the United States, live in fear of deportation—or worse.
The girl crashes in the boy’s room to avoid beatings from her mother’s abusive partner against whom they have no legal recourse for fear of the authorities to whom they might report him. When the girl’s mother surreptitiously becomes a citizen and the girl naturalized, and the boy’s mother decides to go back to her country of origin, the boy and girl begin scheming how they might get him documentation so he can stop living in fear and also qualify for federal student loans to go to college.
And yet all of this is mere context for the extraordinary deeper story of intimacy and longing that unfolds in a way that could only happen on stage. From the moment the girl appears like a force of nature on the fire escape outside the boy’s bedroom, their relationship unfurls like a high-octane modern dance in this fine production directed by Krista Williams.
In fits and spurts the scenes defy linear time in anxious fragments with no clear beginnings or endings but stops and starts delineated by shifts in the actors’ bodies. They lean into each other standing, signifying how they might look lying in bed from an aerial view; they fit like a glove and speak devastating truths, often cursing and swearing, and yet they rarely peer into each other’s eyes.
It’s them against the world in the haven of his bedroom that ultimately turns out to be no sanctuary at all, symbolic of sanctuary cities in which municipal laws are designed to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution.
In the second act, which takes place five years later, after the girl has gone to Boston for college, everything has changed–between them, but also structurally and rhythmically in the play. There is a reckoning, and no more hiding, a major theme of the play, as another character and different stakes are introduced. It is one continuous scene with much less frenetic energy until the devastating ending (not to be spoiled by too many details).
Majok’s play brings the emotional truth of two very real characters’ experience to light amid dark times and policies with experimental structure and rhythm. All of which is heightened by the minimalist set by Stephanie Baugher, a simple two-tiered platform center stage with wooden window frames suspended up stage, on which the focus is on the actors’ bodies and physical interaction. Darian Hrdlicka’s lights delineate time and space, and Christopher Sauerbrey’s sound design provides the background noise of the city as well as turn-of-the-century tunes to remind us the age, both the moment and that of the characters.
But it’s what Mishka Yarovoy as B and Arezu Tavakoli as G do and say, how they move and breathe and create rhythm with language that drive this story straight into our hearts. It’s the way she throws daggers with her eyes; stops his momentum with her face like a wall; and how he softens her with a look and changes the energy in the room with the slightest gesture. There are often about 100 different moods a minute here, which speaks to how accurately they depict what it is to be a teenager, particularly given the obstacles these two particular teenagers face—separately and together.
Because it’s live theater, the audience are voyeurs. We experience this intimacy viscerally: in the moment, in the room, exactly as the actors in front of us are both creating and experiencing it.
And when Jordan Wallace enters the scene as Henry, there’s a whole new conflict. Much to their credit, Wallace holds their own amid the palpable stickiness between the other two, making the twists and turns in the story all the more interesting and the relationships increasingly complex.
Nothing is simple and nothing is entirely resolved here, and yet we all feel a more nuanced understanding of love—and the way the state’s authority can force us to both hide as well as reveal who we really are.
“Sanctuary City” is topical yet terrifically up close and personal in the way only live theater can be. It’s a relatively new work created entirely by Interlochen alumnae, a wonderfully bold and relevant choice as part of their first Shakespeare Festival in three years.