The final production of the 2014-2015 Georgetown University Theatre season is Slow Falling Bird, as part of the 2014-15 Georgetown University Theater & Performance Studies Program’s “Where We’re From: A Season of Origins and Migrations.”
Georgetown University is noted for its interest in geopolitical issues and Georgetown University Professor and playwright Christine Evans‘ award-winning play is a very astute addition to its repertoire. Rosalba Clemente, who is the Head of Acting at Flinders University Drama Centre directs.
Set in the Australian Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, cited as a setting in which detainees are confined, neglected, and possibly physically abused, suicidal attempts have been known to happen. The Australian policy towards immigrants is well-known to be exclusionary and motivated by a desire to restrict entrance to people from western European countries. And, of course, most of the refugees are from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran because that is the conflict zone from which people wish to come, or are forced to leave
While it is safe to say that most people who read the papers are aware of the ballooning refugee problem and restrictions about who can enter relatively prosperous and safe countries like Australia, many people are probably unaware or insensitive to the effect on the jailers and host countries of exclusionary policies.
This play focuses in part on how the experience of the camps debases the jailers as well as the people detained. The play also links the refugee crisis to the xenophobic practices of the Australians toward indigenous people. The race and national origin of the asylum seekers offends those who wish to maintain a western cultural orientation. Apparently refugee children, especially unaccompanied minors, who are considered malleable, are more easily accepted than their parents. According to these authors, this is reminiscent of historic initiatives designed to strip aborigines of their cultural inheritance through separation from parents and placement in distant educational settings. The impact of these policies is to strip children of their cultural identity and loyalties, making them more desirable citizens thantheir parents could become.
Co-Directors Playwright Christine Evans and Rosalba Clemente collaborated on this ambitious production which takes full advantage of the height of the stage and costume design, creating a fantasy world with mythological references to an unborn child watching the action from an elevated platform and life sized birds which sometimes seem animalistic and at other times appear to be driven by human emotions. There is a mystique about the birds which sometimes seems deliberate and thought-provoking and sometimes just seems obscure. Thankfully the program notes assist us in understanding the aesthetic decisions.
The songs, some composed for this play, contribute to the surreal ambience and evoke emotions of sentimentality (“Brown Eyed Girl”) and patriotism (“My Island Home”) which clash ironically with the motives of lust, selfishness, and desperation which otherwise dominate the action. The players are separated by authentic costumes by Kelsey Hunt, and language.
The young actors have been coached in Australian accents and middle eastern accented pigeon English. Sometimes a character is challenged to switch from broken English to fluid English to denote an inner monologue. That is done very well, so that the language barrier is highlighted, and the apparently primitive refugee is revealed to be articulate and insightful. Responsible for that coaching are Susan Lynsey, Danica Kawasaki, and Rosalba Clemente.
The excellent set design by Ruthmarie Tenorio, lighting by Ariel Benjamin, and sound design by Veronica Lancaster contribute to setting the atmosphere and telling the story.
All nine actors turn in powerful and emotional performances: Caleb Lewis (Rick), Isyah Phillips (Micko), Madeleine Kelly (Zahrah), Alexandra Walton (Joy), Sarah Frasco (Baygon) and Ben Prout (Mortein). Other members of the talented cast are Natalie Caceres, Jordanna Hernandez, and Joshua Street.
Caleb Lewis is very effective as a bellicoise and predatory white detention guard whose marital problems both trigger and are the reflection of his occupational stress and strain. He is an unsympathetic character who nevertheless is multi-dimensional.
Isayah Phillips is a black guard who is depicted as marginally accepted in Australia and thus more inclined to see the inmates of the detention center as vulnerable and deserving. His efforts to make a difference are not successful but his evolving consciousness is useful to provide some relief from the unrelenting malice of Rick’s character.
Alexandra Waldon as Joy, Rick’s wife, is a slender blond woman. She’s childlessness and is a contrast to Zahrah’s anxious motherhood. The program notes suggest that Joy is unable to have a child because children don’t want to be born into this context and Joy herself doesn’t want to be “here.”
Slow Falling Bird is an excellent choice for the politically well-informed audience member who enjoys creative staging and adventurous ways of dramatizing moral dilemmas. It’s filled with excellent performances by a very talented cast.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.