Lampedusa: More realistic hope might be more robust

promo photo for Lampedusa

Melissa Oei and Robert Garry Haacke in Lampedusa.
(Credit: Javier R. Sotres Photography)

This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but I think Lampedusa is naïve. That said, it’s about important things and it’s getting a handsome production from Pi Theatre.

In his script, playwright Anders Lustgarten weaves together two narratively unrelated monologues. In Leeds, Denise collects debts for a payday loan company. At first, she defends her predatory employer, telling us that the interest rates are there in black-and-white for anybody to read. The implication is that anyone who signs up is an idiot and deserves what they get. But she starts to change her tune when what’s left of England’s welfare state threatens to cut off her disabled mom’s stipend.

Layering on more stress, Denise, who is mixed-race, is often on the receiving end of racial slurs.

The play’s other narrator, Stefano, is a fisherman who lives on the Italian island of Lampedusa, near Africa. For thousands of refugees, it’s the first European landfall, but many don’t make it. Stefano tells us that “The Med is dead” — the Mediterranean can no longer support him as a fisherman, so he has taken a job retrieving refugees — almost always corpses — from the water. He says the drowned bodies he handles feel “like oiled, lumpy rubbish bags sliding through your fingers”.

It seems clear that the play is fundamentally about capitalism, which celebrates individual striving — and selfishness, to the point of cruelty. The disadvantaged and different are dismissed as weak, stupid — and unwelcome. They are less than human. They’re not us. And they cause all the problems.

I have no argument with this analysis, but here’s the thing: both Denise and Stefano meet “magical” foreigners who turn their lives around. Denise, who is relentlessly hostile, is befriended — for some reason — by a Portuguese single mom named Carolina. And Stefano, who’s less hostile but still not friendly, starts hanging out with Modibo, a mechanic from Mali. As far as I can tell, neither Carolina or Modibo has any reason to pursue Denise and Stefano. Still, with the sheer force of their goodness, guilelessness, and joviality, they set about healing their new friends. This presentation of immigrants and migrants as angelic innocents is condescending. And why on earth would it their job to heal the supposedly more complex lives of their hosts?

I appreciate where the play goes thematically: although they never meet, Denise and Stefano have similar, hallucinatory moments of insight that force us to ask, “When did we stop treating other people as human beings?” These moments would have meant more to me, though, if I’d been more thoroughly engaged with the friendships, if I’d seen them as something more than political and narrative devices. In Lampedusa, Lustgarten is in the business of finding hope, but that hope would be more resonant if it were more credible.

Still, as I said, under Richard Wolfe’s direction, Pi Theatre gives Lampedusa a handsome interpretation.

As Denise, Melissa Oei is particularly affecting. She thoroughly inhabits the character’s abrasiveness and, within that, offers moments of transparency. “Tonight, I feel something shift inside me,” she says, as she starts opening herself to Carolina — and you can see it in the brief welling of tears in her eyes.

Robert Garry Haacke’s Stefano is considerably more opaque — there’s a lot of manly intensity that doesn’t necessarily read as feeling — but Haacke does have the occasional moment in which he lets us see into Stefano’s heart: when Stefano is finding it increasingly difficult to endure the horror of his job, for instance, and he says, “The only one who understands is Modibo.” And Haacke does a lovely job in a passage in which Stefano describes a horrifying storm at sea.

Lauchlin Johnston’s lighting design helps enormously with that scene. And Carolyn Rapanos’s set, which looks like a crumbling pier, emphasizes the general sense of being “at sea.”

I’ve got to say: politically and geopolitically I’m pretty seasick these days.

LAMPEDUSA By Anders Lustgarten. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Pi Theatre production at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab on Saturday, May 7.  Continues until May 21. Tickets


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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