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Theatre in Review: Honduras (Phoenix Theatre Ensemble/Paradise Theatre II)

Valeria A. Avina

Honduras is a brief, yet brutal, immersion in the chaotic and pitiless treatment of immigrants coming illegally to the US from the country of the title. Sara Farrington's script, based on real events, focuses on several characters traveling a road on which all the exit ramps lead to tragedy. Yulisa sits in an Arizona detention center, desperate to see her kids in New York, but she can't produce the $7,500 bail. Lillian, who operates a clothing boutique in the capital city, is being shaken down, in ever-increasing amounts, by a bizarre character known as Short Man; before long, violence has erupted and her seven-year-old daughter, Sofi, is traveling north without a parent. Anamaris, who runs a small-town arepa stand menaced by thugs, decides to flee, hoping to reach her husband and daughter in New Jersey; she brings along her infant son, who is worryingly ill.

These and many others are incarnated by Valeria A. Avina, a performer of a thousand voices, who instantly switches personas by simply assuming a bent-over posture; a too-bright, sinister smile; or a hostile ramrod stance. The narrative is loaded with ugly, revelatory details. Esel, Yulisa's friend and fellow inmate, is subjected to an unidentified operation -- probably a sterilization, based on recent news reports. Anamaris and her husband made the impossible calculation to travel separately and at different times because married couples too often get separated at the border. Once detained by ICE, she is released only because her baby is so obviously ailing; as a government doctor cynically notes, "There have been twelve deaths in this facility. We can make it a baker's dozen and or we can release them to the Catholics and make them their problem." It's little wonder that Sofi, who takes counsel from her Incredible Hulk doll, notes, "You need to grow calloused and hard if you want to survive."

Providing a rare note of hope is a character named American Mom, part of a network of like-minded women who work to get immigrants freed and reunited with their loved ones. Still, such efforts are necessarily limited. As Yulisa, who wonders why she and not someone else is getting help, asks, "Your kindness makes no sense. Only horror makes sense to me. Why would strangers give their money to me? Why do you care?"

You can find plenty of things to pick at in Honduras. The script's construction is jagged, to say the least, leaping forward without much connecting tissue and sometimes leaving you to fill in the blanks. Certain characters, including Esel, who becomes a casualty of the ICE system, and a pair of adolescent girls taken up by a pair of sexual traffickers, are dropped, precipitously, from the narrative. Also, the director, Evan Zes, might convince Avina into taking it down a notch or two; her work, while technically skilled, is several decibels too much for the tiny space. For example, Sofi, who is articulate beyond her years, speaks in a high, demanding whine that can feel assaultive. It will be interesting to see how the performance works on streaming video, which will be your best chance to catch Honduras, since it runs live only through April 10. (On the design side, Tony Mulanix's lighting achieves a surprising number of attractive looks with a small number of units.)

Then again, each of the production's apparent weaknesses may be intentional. Even with all that jumping around, the script is never confusing, and Farrington is, arguably, plunging us, forcibly, into the characters' disorienting journeys -- both their unexpected moments of grace and bitter twists of fate. The playwright's method is to grab the audience and never let go. Honduras means to shake you up and it does just that.

And it may be that the theatrical equivalent of a scream is necessary to get our attention. Farrington knows whereof she speaks, being involved in Immigrant Families Together, an organization consisting of women artists from New York and New Jersey, whose work is reflected in the character of American Mom. And an issue that, several months ago, was a national talking point, seems once again to have faded from our collective consciousness. It's the American way: While most of us worry about inflation and the price of gas, while the current debate is consumed with the supposedly toxic effects of critical race theory and whether Ketanji Brown Jackson can define the word "woman," a human agony is unfolding on our doorstep, and we respond to with indifference and paralysis. It's enough to keep you up at night. --David Barbour

(6 April 2022)

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