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Anywhere But Here: Go there

by | Feb 7, 2020 | Review | 1 comment

Electric Company is presenting Anywhere But Here at the Vancouver Playhouse as part of the PuSh Festival.

Alexandra Lainfiesta’s performance in Anywhere But Here is masterfully unadorned — as clear as glass. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Carmen Aguirre’s script for Anywhere But Here takes a long time to find its groove but, when it does, it’s thrilling. Really. Although I was ambivalent about the text after the first act, I rocketed out of my seat for the ovation at the end. And the production is always bracingly vibrant and confident.

Anywhere But Here draws on Aguirre’s personal experience as a member of a leftist Chilean family that was forced to leave their homeland after Augusto Pinochet’s violent, US-backed overthrow of the democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973.

In Anywhere But Here, Aguirre’s stand-in, Carolita, is eleven years old. It’s 1979 and Carolita and her family are living in Vancouver. But when Carolita’s dad Manuel catches her mom Laura making out with an activist from Burnaby, he grabs his daughters — Carolita and her 12-year-old sister Lupe — and starts driving like a madman back to Chile.

The production immediately establishes its stylistic richness. The making out, the fight, and the fury are all staged in slow motion — to dreamy 70s music. And Carolita’s buoyant response is about how hilarious her parents’ Spanish swearing is when you translate it directly into English.

As we get deeper into Act 1, this richness expands into full-blown magical realism. Early one morning after Manuel and his kids have slept in their car, Carolita encounters a well-armed racist vigilante in the nearby woods. In one of the script’s best twists, Carolita and the vigilante end up sobbing together. I’ll leave it to you to find out why. But I will tell you that the vigilante is from 2020 and Manuel’s car has transformed from a beat-up Volkswagen into a pink Cadillac convertible.

And then there’s the visitation from Carolita’s deceased Aunt Lili, who has become a monarch butterfly.

Conceptually and visually, this is all a trip but, narratively, Act 1 is inert. That’s because the central conflict and stakes are all off-stage. We’ve never seen the family together, so we don’t know what might be lost in its rupture. Carolita wants to go back to Vancouver, but her relationship with her mom is a blank. Laura, the mom, isn’t in the car, so her conflict with Manuel stays in the ether. And, although Manuel attempts to evoke his attachment to Chile by describing the family’s yellow bungalow, that house isn’t onstage — it isn’t lived in, it’s a poetic conceit — so it remains abstract.

Act 2 brings the drama and the stakes into the present theatrical moment and is much stronger for doing so. Laura finally catches up with the rest of her family, so that conflict is finally right in front of us. Most importantly, a third timeframe emerges: 1973, the coup. In 1979, Carolita and her family are stranded at the Mexican border, unable to get over the 2020 border wall, when a Canadian diplomat arrives. In the aftermath of the coup, he’s trying to bring food to a Canadian prisoner, the Burnaby activist Laura made out with. Through his presence and through the video projections designed by Candelario Andrade, the gravity of the coup and its traumatic impact on Carolita’s family are suddenly concrete and urgent — and we can feel why Chile is so important to them.

From here on, Anywhere But Here is a glorious ride. I won’t give too much away, but I will say that, in the climax, the Virgin del Carmen, the patron saint of Chile, arrives to deliver a transcendently funny and complex speech. At this point, Anywhere But Here is so vaultingly ambitious and inventive that it reminds me of Angels in America. And the saint’s speech is capped by a series of cues that involve a mirror ball, disco music, and the image of Carolita’s family floating in the night sky. It’s fantastic.

A whole lot of talent has gone into this evening. Augusto Bitter is a scene stealer — in the best way — radiating charisma as Aunt Lili (in drag) and as Carolita’s abuelo (grandpa). Shawn Lall rocks his portraits of both the vigilante and the consular official, bringing authenticity and very different textures to the roles. A wonderfully physical actor, Nadeem Phillip delivers one of the most stellar performances of the evening, capturing all of Manuel’s passion as well as his absurdity. And AJ Simmons and Alexandria Lainfiesta are excellent as the squabbling sisters Lupe and Carolita. I totally believed these two as tweens and, in the pivotal role of Carolita, Lainfiesta does a masterful job of unifying the story’s sorrow and joy.

One performance works considerably less well for me: Christine Quintana’s Laura comes across as passive and saintly. Flat. This problem might begin in the writing, but all of the other characters have spin — large doses of eccentricity and surprise — while Laura has none.

I also had a problem with the two sections of rap poetry that Aguirre has created with Shad Kabango: I couldn’t hear them. Playing a character named Arcangel, Alen Dominguez delivers those raps — and he needs a microphone. Arcangel comes from Honduras and his presence in the play is crucial: it ties the Chilean story to the current crises of displacement. And Arcangel’s mere presence in the scene with the Canadian diplomat is moving: who will step forward to be his diplomatic champion? But, to get the full impact of this story, I need to hear it.

Still, there’s lots more to love, including Joelysa Pankanea’s percussive score, which electrifies the dialogue, Itai Erdal’s dynamic lighting, Christopher Acebo’s elemental set with its expanse of sand and low, dark mountains, and Carmen Alatorre’s witty costumes: Lupe wears a T-shirt that says, “I know you are but what am I?”; the saint has a glittering crown, and there’s a flock of monarch butterflies.

Juliette Carillo directed Anywhere But Here and, as a viewer, I’ve never felt I was in better hands.

Anywhere But Here is madly ambitious. It’s original. And it sets a new highwater mark for Latinx representation in Canada. All of this makes it very, very exciting.

ANYWHERE BUT HERE By Carmen Aguirre with raps by Shad. Directed by Juliette Carillo. An Electric Company Theatre production in association with Playwrights Theatre Centre. Presented with PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday, February 6 as part of PuSh. Continues until February 15. Tickets.

It costs a lot to mount such an audacious production and Electric Company is still fundraising. If you’d like to help, you can make a donation here or you can email to directly from your phone banking app.


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1 Comment

  1. Paula Temrick

    Thank-you for writing such an outstandingly descriptive review and enjoyable read – I agree, ‘rocketed out of my seat’!


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