At Curious Theatre, ‘Refuge’ uses puppets, music and a familiar story to portray the human side of the immigration crisis

The world premiere of Refuge runs at the Curious Theatre in Denver during volatile times in global events. With millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine to the (mostly) open arms of neighboring countries, it brings into question the longstanding inequities of immigration taking place elsewhere and at home in the U.S. Current events have a way of triggering the importance of messaging found in creative projects, and Refuge is no exception. By shining a light on the ongoing plight of migrants at the U.S. border, Refuge strives to awaken the audience by showing how hardened positions and seemingly intractable situations can be addressed through more human connection, compassion and action.

The multilingual play, co-created by Satya Jnani-Chávez and Andrew Rosendorf, is an eclectic mix of live music, singing, puppetry and dialogue that relates the perilous journey of a teenage Honduran girl crossing the border in search of her mother. While the performance is meant to show the stark, blunt reality of the migrant experience, director Dee Covington stresses how musical expression connects the humanity to the hardship. “We all speak the language of song,’ she says in the program notes. “In song we are united.”

The set features a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe overlooking the barebones landscape of Texas border property. Several of the eight actors play multiple roles, including voices and puppeteering, accompanied by guitarist Mari Meza-Burgos. Playing throughout the entire performance, Meza-Burgos does very nice work providing an ongoing backdrop that helps keep the grim plot from becoming too oppressive.

Puppeteer Josue Miranda and Satya Jnani Chávez

At the top of the show, the actors are gathered around a decaying corpse with a black-veiled woman representing death in the background. When they depart, the lobo enters.

In many respects, the wolf represents the plight of the migrant, desperate and alone just trying to survive. Superbly portrayed by Sam Gilstrap, lobo howls and stalks, dragging off body parts while leaving the shoes of the dead woman behind. The shoes are soon discovered by the Honduran girl, played by Jnani-Chávez. Although relieved to have shoes to continue her journey, she soon finds herself confronted by the Texas rancher whose land she has entered.

The main story unfolds as the uninviting, racially challenged, paranoid, gun-toting Texas rancher (Erik Sandvold), moves from indignation to compassion as he warms to comparisons between his deceased daughter and the girl. He mistakenly believes that his daughter lost her life at the hands of a migrant, and it fuels his despair and hardened outlook. But thanks to his newfound connection with the Honduran girl and the love for his lone companion, Steph the dog, (nicely performed by the puppeteering and voice of Lisa Hori-Garcia), his heart begins to open to a more generous place. It’s a powerful performance by Sandvold, who eschews any kind of MAGA or Minuteman type and plays the rancher with humanity and relatable confusion over how and why this keeps happening again and again.

Symbolic encounters between the rancher’s old dog Steph and lobo — separated by thin barbed wire — serve as a reminder that the ground we walk and the lives we live aren’t all that different. We’re all just trying to get by. The omnipresent threat of the desert comes in the form of a a slithering rattler, performed by puppeteer Joshue Miranda. Many of these exchanges serve to demonstrate basic human survival and underlying issues affecting the “haves and have nots” inside society.

So where is the “refuge?” For the rancher, it’s his 400-plus acres and the comfortable life he’s built. As he tells the girl about it, her blank expression hits a striking contrast: Her “refuge” is mere survival, and just a chance to start from scratch.

Alongside interactions between the rancher and the migrant girl, there’s a very pregnant border patrol officer attempting to handle the situation after tracking her for days. The officer, played by GerHee Hinshaw, brings a wonderful combination of intensity and humor as she balances helping the girl with her responsibilities as an agent — and her friendship with the rancher. Her frequent reports back to her superior agent, Hal, also played by Gilstrap, offer levity in the form of knucklehead lyric singing that drives home a certain nonchalant American detachment to reality. That’s later brought to a screeching halt as Hal’s darker history is revealed.

In addition to strong acting, the singing throughout is tremendous. All the actors can “bring it,” but Jnani-Chávez’s high notes bring the house down.

Refuge really pushes the envelope of a bilingual play, and there were places where my limited understanding of Spanish left me in the dark — although it’s not a bad device to put the audience in the same boat as the migrants who understand little English. Mostly, though, any of the Spanish, either in word or song, is echoed in English.

Refuge runs just under two hours without intermission. It’s a non-stop heavy lift by the actors, who have no exits and are fully committed to singing and playing multiple roles. It’s all staged on a set by Markas Henry that’s bleak, with ominous skulls on the wall but still portraying some of the beauty of the desert.

Refuge offers a powerful look at the realities faced by migrants trying to enter the U.S. But its focus on both sides of the fence — both literal and all-too-real — offers a collective sense of hope that seems in short supply these days.