‘Migraaaaants!’ at ExPats Theatre on the border between sendup and serious

Subtitled 'There's Too Many of Us on This Damn Boat!,' the play is as enjoyable in its theatricality as it is heartwrenching in its content.

As if anyone needed reminding of the relevance of this play about the plight of migrants, on the very day it opened, a much-indicted wannabe autocrat demeaned undocumented immigrants as “not people” and “animals.” With such immigration fear-mongering a blatant plank in the Republican Party’s tacit platform, the time cries out for art that humanizes the dehumanized. Meeting that challenge with Migraaaants! — a cheekily titled human-rights entreaty masquerading as a bracing entertainment — ExPats Theatre has given DC audiences a work of existentially crucial awakening.

The play — subtitled There’s Too Many of Us on This Damn Boat! — is about America’s so-called immigration crisis by inference and analogy. It was actually written as a reaction to the European refugee crisis in 2016 by the Romanian-born playwright Matéi Vișniec, whose powerful The Body of a Woman as Battlefield, about sexual violence as a weapon of war, was staged by ExPats last year. Directed astutely by Karin Rosnizeck, the production of Migraaaaants! now at Atlas Performing Arts Center is as enjoyable in its theatricality as it is heartwrenching in its content — which derives, shockingly, from real events.

Irina Koval, Brock Brown, Vivian Allvin, George Kassouf, Eli EL, and Ege Yalcinbas in ‘Migraaaaants!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Watching Migraaaaants!, one enters into a tonal split, a discombobulation between its appealing variety-show format and its thematic undercurrent of monumental inhumanity against people fleeing war and misery. A stage set beguilingly beribboned in peaceful shades of blue harbors projection screens upon which videos document unfolding horrors superimposed on a roiling sea (set and projection design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson). There is a message-in-improbable-medium genius going on.

A versatile ensemble of six, who each play multiple roles with panache, first appears crawling across a dark stage hooded and in rags as the screens fill with creepy videos of scampering ants. Is the image meant to evoke xenophobic fear of immigrants as an invading species?

Quickly, two of the cast reveal themselves as a migrant named Elihu (Brock Brown) and a swaggering, black-leather-clad Smuggler Boss (Eli El), who barks directions and instructions at both Elihu and the audience. We get treated as though we and migrants share a common fate, the beginning of an empathy throughline that will culminate, figurately, in the notion that we are all in the same boat.

But first, some sketch comedy, of which Migraaaaants! has a boatload.

The three women in the cast — Vivian Alvin, Irina Koval, and Eve Yalcinbas — enter dressed in thigh-high skirts like a cheesy Charlie’s Angels trio and proceed to hawk a device called a heartbeat detector, which will suss out illegal stowaways (costume design by Alisa Mandel). They address us as customers. The demonstration prop they each hold is a stone phallus, which they stroke as if to flatter border-enforcers’ egos. The routine plays like a silly fiction except such devices exist and are in use today at borders, as a program note explains. Later in the show, the three lady hucksters will flippantly pitch ecological barbed wire, with which they jump rope.

Though we in the audience have just been shifted from being shouted at as migrants to being pandered to as border guards, what’s really at play in the mind is more about toggling between the show’s dueling tonalities — grim fact base and fun form. It’s a uniquely unsettling and illuminating experience.

Among the other 20-odd vignettes that play like absurdist whims but aren’t is one in which a Smuggler (El) cajoles the migrant Elihu (Brown) into selling his kidney in return for safe passage. To sweeten the offer, the charlatan opens his briefcase, which lights up and chimes and displays a dozen cans of Coke (props designed by Martin Bernier). He gives one to Elihu, who pops the top as the Coca-Cola logo blazes onscreen, signaling the primo product placement. In a single stroke, the sketch skewers capitalist consumerism and organ trafficking.

TOP: Irina Koval, Ege Yalcinbas, and Vivian Allvin; ABOVE: George Kassouf, Eli EL, and Brock Brown in ‘Migraaaaants!’ Photos by Teresa Castracane.

Politicians get dragged pretty well as well. In a scene set against the seal of the “High Office of the Prime-President,” a President character in Boris Johnson-ish shag blond wig (George Kassouf) gets advised by a Political Correctness Coach (Alvin), who undertakes to make palatable the pronouncements in a speech he intends to give. What she tells him in their exchange jumped out at me as among the play’s most profound observations (the translation is by Nick Awde):

COACH: I’m not sure if you noticed, but the media doesn’t really use the term “immigrant” any more. Nor “illegal”.
PRESIDENT: So, what are they using instead?
COACH: They’re using “migrant”.
PRESIDENT: And whyever so?
COACH: So as not to stigmatise them.
PRESIDENT: So as not to stigmatise who?
COACH: Well, you know, so as not to stigmatise the immigrants and the illegals.
PRESIDENT: I’m not sure I get you.
COACH: Think about it. We’re in the middle of the globalisation process. And globalisation is what we’ve always wanted, isn’t it? You wanted it, your majority wanted it, our country wanted it. So, it follows that in a globalised world we’ve all become migrants not immigrants. You follow?
COACH: To be consistent with your economic vision, you need to forget the words “immigrant” and “illegal”. An immigrant is someone who comes from elsewhere, crosses a border and settles in a territory where he has to respect the local customs, rules and laws. In essence, he leaves a place he calls home and moves to another place that isn’t his home. Right?
COACH: But a migrant is at home everywhere, all over the planet. In a globalised world, people migrate, people are migrants, we move, we have the right to go where we want and when we want. So suddenly a migrant doesn’t have to respect any special rules, because he considers himself a global citizen. And that’s what globalisation is about. We have globalised the economy, we have set free the circulation of ideas, capital, goods and services, so why don’t we also recognise the right of people to move freely?
PRESIDENT: Well, because…
COACH: I’m only pointing out the contradiction.

There’s a show-stopping bit performed by a woman in a burqa (Ege Yalcinbas) that is hilarious and too priceless to be given away. There is a scene with an Undertaker (Kassouf), a mother (Irina Koval) searching for her lost child, and her interpreter (Ege Yalcinbas) that is so painfully poignant it too should stay unspoiled.

There is a bewildering scene in which the entire ensemble appears as prostitutes “calling for a revolution in the tenderness sector” and “starting the process of sexual globalization.” And there is a scene set ridiculously to karaoke of “We Are the World (We Are the Children)” (sound design by Aria Velz), in which two Smugglers (El and Brown) sing and dance their hearts out about what is revealed to be the recruitment of children for sex trafficking. Sometimes the satire turns so dark it feels wrong to laugh.

In this play on the border between sendup and serious, the range of topics is sweeping, the call to shared humanity is clarion, and the theatricality is extraordinary. Kudos to ExPats for bringing to DC a gripping and thought-provoking play that could not be more on time.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Migraaaaants! or There’s Too Many of Us on This Damn Boat! plays through April 7, 2024, presented by ExPats Theatre performing in Lab Theatre II at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Showtimes are 7:30 pm Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 2:30 pm Sundays. For tickets ($45, general admission; $40, senior; $20, student) call the box office at 202-399-6764 or go online.

For ages 13 and up.

COVID Safety: Atlas Performing Arts Center strongly recommends that all audience members wear masks while inside the venue, but they are no longer required. See Atlas’ complete COVID policy here.

Migraaaaants! or There’s Too Many of Us on This Damn Boat!
By Matéi Vișniec
Translated by Nick Awde

Vivian Allvin: Balkan Woman, Presenter, Political Correctness Coach, Newsreader, Madame, Political Expert
Brock Brown: Children Smuggler, Smuggler, Migrant Visitor, Elihu, Fehed, Prostitute
Eli El: Smuggler Boss, Children Smuggler, Prostitute
George Kassouf: Smuggler, Balkan Man, Ali, President, Undertaker, Prostitute
Irina Koval: Presenter, Old Woman, Prostitute, Political Expert
Ege Yalcinbas: Presenter, Translator, Anahita, Prostitute, Political Expert
All: Migraaaaants Ensemble

Director: Karin Rosnizeck
Stage Manager: Willow McFatter
Set Designer/Projection Designer: Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Lighting Designer: Ian Claar
Costume Designer: Alisa Mandel
Voice Coach: Hilary Kacser
Movement Coach: George Kassouf
Sound Designer: Aria Velz
Props Designer: Martin Bernier
Speech and Voice Coach: Hilary Kacser
Fight Choreographer: Eli El

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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