Spooky Action’s frolicsome ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres’ gets spoofy for real

Who knew poking fun at cultural imperialism could be so much fun?

Who knew poking fun at cultural imperialism could be so much fun? Who knew satirizing humanitarian egomania could be so satisfying? Who knew spoofing do-gooders doing bad could be such a good time? Certainly not I — not until I took in Spooky Action Theater’s enchantingly sardonic production of Phillip Howze’s Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres.

Directed by Spooky’s artistic director Elizabeth Dinkova displaying a knack for comic irony worthy of Howze’s wickedly wry script, Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres (Borders Without Borders) tells a captivating fable about a ragtag trio of ragamuffins surviving with grit and affection in an unspecified crisis zone. We get to know them as Win, age 14, the leader (Anna Takayo); Noon, in the middle (Surasree Das); and Pan, at 11 the youngest (Victor Salinas) — all charming as all get out.

Surasree Das (Noon), Victor Salinas (Pan), and Anna Takayo (Win) in ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Their home is a hovel inside an abandoned signal tower surrounded by bagfuls of trash, and within the three-quarter-thrust playing space is their makeshift playground, outfitted with a stuffed hobby horse, a teddy bear, and a child-size pool — all the worse for wear.

Bright and boppy music plays incongruously from a portable radio as the three urchins dance and frolic delightedly. And when they begin to speak, we begin to hear the linguistic pastiche of fractured syntax, puns, and pidgin English that Howze has imagined for them. In their first scene with dialogue, Win the eldest coaches the others in how to affect pathetic poses for begging from foreigners, how to pick pockets (“You must to be fast. Like shadow. Like never-ever was there. Undastand?”), and how to speak good “Engaleash” (“A applez is two applez will be’s manys applez trees”).

During the play, Win, Noon, and Pan get dropped in on by foreigners, each an interloper, a meddler, and a clown-like con — all except Thom (an impressive Jamil Joseph). A charitable and guileless teacher, Thom assists the scrappy kids with their Engaleash even as they wrangle handouts from him.

TOP LEFT: Lauren Davis (W.H.O.) and Anna Takayo (Win); TOP RIGHT: Camilo Linares (Backpacker), Surasree Das (Noon), Anna Takayo (Win), and Victor Salinas (Noon); ABOVE LEFT: Anna Takayo (Win), Frank Britton (Cigarette Man), and Jamil Joseph (Thom); ABOVE RIGHT: Surasree Das (Noon), Camilo Linares (Assistant), Lauren Davis (Actress) and, Anna Takayo (Win), in ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres.’ Photos by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Along comes a Backpacker (Camilo Linares, playing clueless), who takes photos of the young locals without their consent: “We’re always looking for images of resilient people in dire circumstance,” he says with smarm.

A character named W.H.O. arrives — a rep from the World Health Organization (played enjoyably broadly by Lauren Davis) — to survey the indigenous and inoculate them with an outsize hypodermic: “Thanks to the promise of war, there will be a lot more work to do around Here,” W.H.O. says with glee. “I can almost smell those benefits: pension, paid leave, diplomatic immunity.”  She leaves behind plastic bottles of prescription pills, which the kids promptly use as shakers as they take a giddy dance break.

The serial clown show continues with an actual Clown (Frank Britton) and Mime (Davis), who do a nutty circus routine and lay the condescension on thick:

CLOWN: We’ve come to entertain you.
We’re here in this savage land to encourage laughter.

We’re from Clowns Across Bounds.
We’ve come to bring joy into your sad little lives.

A surly Militia man (Linares) barges in and while there takes a whiz on one of the kids, who futilely but hilariously mimes an umbrella for protection.

More than stunt entrances, these savagely funny incursions accumulate into a complex reckoning with first-world presumptions. (Howze knows whereof he writes; he once worked for an international human rights philanthropy and as an educator in Asia.) These comic cameos also show off jaw-droppingly skilled caricature performances.

Britton, for instance, shows up as a wheeler-dealer Cigarette Man, who steals the scene with his vocal contortions and pliable mug. “What’s your value?” he asks the kids. “Don’t be disposable.”

Davis appears as a glam prima donna Actress “on a goodwill mission” with showstopping hauteur: “I don’t mean to pathologize you, but. May I?”

And Linares as glam rocker Baby Boo does a glitzy-cool dance number to a silly tune called “Fitted Panties.”

The stage arts on display are marvelous. Nadir Bey’s shrewd scenic design manages to say both desolation and comedy. Christian D. Henrriquez’s lighting can be both tender and explosive. Johnna Presby’s costumes make watching the acting all the more fun. Robert Bowen Smith has directed the cast in movement that’s an entertainment unto itself.
Yetunde Felix-Ukwu has coached a wild assortment of dialects. Liz Long designed that sight-gag hypodermic and countless other props. And Navi’s sound design encompasses thunderclaps, rain, bombs, and farts. (This is theater buffa. There are lotsa farts.)

Howze’s hilarious script can be lacerating in its satire, as in this speech to the kids that could as well be addressed to the performing arts at large:

This has been fun, hasn’t it?
My being here with you? Teaching you how to act.
Acting is delightful.
It’s fun to escape the pain of the present. Even if only
for a moment.
To hideaway in a foreign land. To forget
about the place where you’re from.
To ignore the truth of what’s happening.
Ignorance makes the pill of reality easier to swallow.

In the end — through all the cynical shenanigans and charlatans the kids endure — it is the sweetly touching performances of Anna Takayo, Surasree Das, and Victor Salinas that keep us caring about Win, Noon, and Pan so deeply. That empathic connection, embedded in and engendered by this brilliant production, is well worth taking to heart. Plus, what happens to them in the second act could tear you apart.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes including one intermission.

Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres plays through May 19, 2024 (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.), presented by Spooky Action Theater performing at The Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (general admission, $37.50; students with valid ID, $20; seniors, $32.50; a limited number at $15) are available online.

The program for Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional.

Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres
By Phillip Howze
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Anna Takayo: Win
Surasree Das: Noon, Nobel Laureate
Victor Salinas: Pan
Camilo Linares: Backpacker, Militia, Assistant, Baby Boo
Lauren Davis: W.H.O., Actress, Mime
Frank Britton: Cigarette Man, Clown, Developer
Jamil Joseph: Thom, Laborer
Raghad Almakhlouf, Dylan Arredondo: Understudies

Nadir Bey: Scenic Design
Christian D. Henrriquez: Lighting Design
Johnna Presby: Costume Design
Navi: Sound Design
Liz Long: Properties Design
Robert Bowen Smith: Movement Director
Yetunde Felix-Ukwu: Dialect Coach
Fior Tat: Production Stage Manager
Reed Simiele: Production Manager and Technical Director
Gillian Drake: Associate Producer
Raghad Almakhlouf, Dylan Arredondo: Assistant Directors
Andrew Reilly: Assistant Stage Manager
Troy Johnson: Run Crew

Phillip Howze on how he wrote his biting satire ‘Frontiéres Sans Frontiéres’ (interview by Deryl Davis, May 3, 2024)

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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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