Review: MIGRAAAANTS at Theatre Passe Muraille

Two Thousand Feet Up's production is a dark look at what it takes to find a better life.

By: Jan. 30, 2024
Review: MIGRAAAANTS at Theatre Passe Muraille

When you enter the Mainspace at Theatre Passe Muraille for Two Thousand Feet Up’s MIGRAAAANTS, Romanian playwright Matei Visniec’s 2016 work (translated by Nick Awde) about the waves of migrants who make the dangerous trek to Italy by sea while risking drowning and either indifference or violence by coast guard officials, you are given your place on the boat and two plastic bags.

One is for seasickness, because you’re not allowed to move on the 15-hour journey, lest the cramped vessel sink. The other is to hold your phone, your most important lifeline in the days to come, keeping it dry to help secure your rescue. What aren’t you allowed to keep? Your identity documents, for one thing, so you can’t be traced once you arrive, and even your identity and story must remain circumspect. You must say that you’re fleeing a specific war, because other forms of violence, hunger, and poverty just won’t do to open that metaphorical combination lock that bars your entry to European soil.

Putting the audience onto the same boat as its characters and letting us feel the intense, heated gaze of its captain exemplifies what MIGRAAAANTS does best, which is to take us on a journey. The story of the boat is the heart of the show, and it’s where the cast and atmosphere are at their most riveting. In particular, Boss, the boat captain (Ahmad Meree, formerly on stage at TPM with his double bill of SUITCASE/ADRENALINE) is a fascinating, complex character full of contradictory emotion, an angry, profiteering smuggler with a peculiar moral code who is both repellent and sympathetic. His commanding presence provides the show with much of its guiding continuity and impact.

A scene where he argues with two of his crew about which four passengers should be thrown overboard to balance the ship is fascinating; the crew argue that democracy demands all the abandoned passengers should be Christian, as they make up less than 20% of the ship, but the captain argues a 50/50 split to avoid favouritism (and avoid angering the main population of the passengers’ chosen destination). Because there seems to be no way that Italy would find out about this action, it serves to highlight the captain’s obsession with fairness in a situation that could only be born from an unfair distribution of resources.

When we’re not on the boat, our attention is focused all over the stage. Siavash Shabanpour’s direction makes fantastic use of TPM’s black box space, placing action throughout the audience and scenes at all levels, from the balcony to the spotlight loft. Set designer Kadi Badiou uses a scrim to subtly hide a visual surprise of a set, and a couple of strong moments where a real prop or action was given an added flourish via a projection made me a little disappointed that these design elements weren’t pursued throughout the show.

As well, the reflective survival jackets from early in the performance, a striking costume choice, could be used in a more directed way to create a conversation via their image at the intersection of high tech and poverty. Other moments, where two salespeople who wear a combination of power suit and lingerie try to sell us on dystopian anti-immigrant technology, present entertaining visual gags (via costume designer Tessa Bourchier) that might hold more interest than the content itself.

MIGRAAAANTS’ scenes (30 were written by Visniec, with the collective choosing which ones to use in the 80-minute performance) are disconnected, but present moments from several parallel threads and stories. When they work, such as the tense boat journey, they’re extremely powerful. The story of a Balkan (unspecified location) husband and wife who gradually open their home to migrants who need water and cellphone chargers is also moving; she becomes markedly less sheltered and insular, while his idealism wars with his job making barbed wire.

Less interesting than these stories are the broadly satirical jabs at Western capitalists and politicians that take attention away from the important human story of the migrants without offering much that’s new.

Then, there are the threads that strive for the surreal, such as one where a character with the voice of a Disney villain from the Deep South gradually deconstructs a Tiny Tim-like refugee child named Elihu (Parastoo Amanzadeh gives a very effective, minimalist performance, Elihu’s wide eyes and tentative responses garnering instant sympathy) with the promise that these sacrifices will help Elihu’s family. Strange flourishes, like a remote-controlled car that delivers soft drinks and a VR headset that purports to display a public washroom to Elihu’s delight, strip us of clear notions of time, place, and reality as Elihu is stripped of his organs and limbs.

The cartoonishness of this evil as presented makes it more horrifying but less compelling on a human scale. I found that to be true for almost every thread in the show: each makes its point effectively, then goes just a little bit too far after the most impactful moment with an extra scene to try to drive home the horror, which edges into melodrama. That doesn’t stop the experience from being impactful and haunting, but suggests the value of a small but judicious amount of editing.

Ultimately, something that sticks out about MIGRAANTS is that it’s a show about the needs of migrants and refugees, but one that leaves their voices mostly silent, out of the equation. Instead, we get a searing picture of their plight through the eyes of their oppressors and those around them: smugglers and swindlers who take their money, children, and bodies with promises of a better life; capitalists who profit off the fearmongering of the Other; politicians who use words as an excuse to do nothing; ordinary people who are confused and a little afraid of these strangers, but who might just step up to do what’s right.

Though I would have loved to hear the stories of the migrants themselves, the show is deliberate in rotating the board: we’re the ones on the boat, looking at the barriers from the other side. We’re invited to transpose our own experiences to the stories we don’t get to hear, suggesting that they could have been our own, simply by accident of birth.

Photo of Daniel Motaharzadeh, Ahmad Meree, and Jamar Adams-Thompson by Zahra Saleki