The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

Updated: Feb 12

Touted as the largest Latinx production to receive a global mainstage premiere in Canada, Electric Company Theatre’s Anywhere But Here is a groundbreaking event. Written by Carmen Aguirre, who spent her early adulthood in the underground resistance movement against the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet, the play features a largely female and almost entirely Latinx cast. It will come as no surprise, then, that the work delves into the controversial subject matter of borders, exile, and forced migration —but the heavy themes are buoyed by ample humour and marvelously inventive direction by Juliette Carillo.

The story in Anywhere But Here centers around a father (Nadeem Phillip) and his two daughters in Vancouver circa 1979. Emotionally devastated upon discovering his wife’s infidelity, he spontaneously launches into a wild flight back to Chile, girls in tow, determined to recapture the life they had there before the family emigrated as refugees. The younger of the two girls (Alexandra Lainfiesta) is the emotional anchor of the play. She complains of not being able to adequately recollect the Chile of their childhood, likening herself to a television with no reception. Her elder sister (AJ Simmons), on the other hand, remembers Chile in lucid detail. They fight constantly, testing their father’s patience.

“Magic Realism” is described as a style of fiction that presents a realistic view of the world while adding fantastical elements. In Anywhere But Here these elements are myriad. “It was my psyche trying to work out my cultural identity, having spent my entire life in exile”, Carmen says, “and that’s where the surreal and magic parts of the play come in.” When the family’s journey is abruptly halted at the US / Mexico border by Trump’s 2020 border wall, they are completely bewildered - and this is where the play's investigation into exile begins in earnest. Soon, they are accosted by numerous culture and genre-spanning characters from the future and the past. Among them: a talking monarch butterfly (Augusto Bitter) on its own migration across the continent, a racist vigilante border guard (Shawn Lall) from the present day, a pro-union activist (Manuela Sosa) fleeing a Disney sweatshop, a Bolivian / Argentinian revolutionary (Michelle Rios) from the 19th century, and a climactic religious vision of the Virgin Carmen, patron saint of Chile. The play is dense with historical references, and it is not always clear who is real and who is imagined, or whether our protagonists are hallucinating individually or collectively. Through these encounters, the play explores the ageless human experience of exile and how it shapes who we are. As the director says in the handout, the work invites us to “experience the barriers —emotional and literal— exiles feel when desperately reaching their way back ‘home’”.

Carmen Aguirre is profoundly aware that humankind is currently experiencing one of its greatest refugee crises ever, with millions upon millions displaced and traumatized. “Behind the statistics and news media are real stories of individual and collective resilience that need to be shared”, she says. Her aim is to humanize these desperate people that have been so unfairly demonized all over the world at border crossings just like the one in the play. In Anywhere But Here she succeeds admirably, ingeniously weaving together sorrow and loss with unexpected joy. The wonderful sand-covered set, designed by Christopher Acebo, morphs and dances under Itai Erdal’s dynamic lights, and the show features a collection of instantly recognizable tunes from the 70s. Also featured are a couple of rap performances co-written by Juno award-winning hip hop artist Shad Kabango and Carmen Aguirre.

The Electric Company Theatre was formed in 1996 by four graduates of Studio 58 at Langara. It has created more than 25 original works of and toured many both nationally and internationally. Carmen Aguirre is one of a group of senior Canadian creators who lead the company. Together, they aim to inspire audiences with a renewed sense of possibility and expand their own definition of what live theatre can be. Anywhere But Here will be at the Vancouver Playhouse from February 4th until the 15th.