3 out of 4 stars
As a caravan of refugees waits at the US border and is in every newsfeed, halfway across this nation in an off the beaten path space in Chicago, the sincere and energetic youth of the Albany Park Theater Project open Ofrenda: a new play about creating home in turbulent times. As history unfolds, I suspect this piece will grow and change as well: while the passion of Ofrenda’s sentiment and the timeliness of the topic are unimpeachable, the work of art is still rough about the edges. This is an evening filled with emotion and the hopefulness of youth, honed by the tragedy of our nation’s current xenophobic era.
APTP is known for its works of ensemble driven devised theatre that tell the stories of the youth in the neighborhood: Albany Park is ground zero for Chicago as a melting pot of immigration and world culture. APTP gives a voice to youth we don’t always hear from and as a social and artistic venture it is uncommonly successful at transforming lives. The APTP home theatre, the Laura Wiley,is an air conditioned intimate jewel box that sits under the roof of the Eugene Field Park fieldhouse, and keeps the young people who are the cast of the show in personal space distance. The interactive ending of the work brings us even closer as it encourages the audience to share their stories and become a part of the piece.
Ofrenda gives a few snippets of stories tied to sundry objects: the stuffed bear, the bottle of vaporub, a candle, and then it expands on the sagas of several families forced to leave home, finishing up with a rousing re-creation of a protest at the downtown Chicago detention center. According to their press release, all stories are true as reported to the story collectors. In between narratives,there are washes of movement, and signature moments where, in a leifmotif ritual, a journal comes out of a vintage suitcase and is opened displaying a tiny exquisite fold out creation. The technicals on the show are lush, from the lighting and projection design by Elizabeth Mak to the exquisite objects by Jackie Valdez. The 33 eager and sincere cast members move through the complex and non-linear evening with nary a misstep. Of particular note were Itzel Espino who starts the show, Teddy Morco and dancer Phon Nguyen. The piece tosses the legalese of immigration and documentation about like the football it is and the political commentary is overt. But the piece spends too much time telling us instead of showing us and letting us in: Isaac Gomez’s script needs more space to let the characters breathe. It steps very hard on the polemic side of the line of political art, and directors Stephanie Paul and Maggie Popadiak have the work shout a lot. What makes a story interesting is the quiet moments, the interstitial spaces, and so up close and loud, we the audience don’t have much of an opportunity to feel. Still it remains an important topic to spend an evening contemplating and watching the young actors work through the piece brings me optimism for our future.