Immigration rears its chaotic head in two shows that opened over the weekend, and here’s the thing: neither script was written during the past three years of “build the wall” rhetoric, travel bans and border separation tactics. The two-man interrogation “New Guidelines for Peaceful Times” is a 2001 Brazilian play, while “Anon(ymous)” premiered in 2006 as an adaptation of “The Odyssey.”
Here’s the other thing: Both works are almost desperate to believe in the power of stories to make a difference. That romanticism particularly takes the political sting out of the gauzy, plodding “Anon(ymous).”
Bosco Brasil’s “New Guidelines” at least winds up as a smart theatrical trick as staged by Spooky Action Theater. Director Roberta Alves and designer Teca Fichinski erect a small wooden cage in the troupe’s church basement home on 16th Street NW, with the audience only two rows deep and very close on either side of a stage only 12 feet square. There’s an official-looking desk, a Brazilian immigration officer and a Polish refugee who has fled Europe. It’s 1945, and as the title suggests, the rules are changing for who can and can’t enter the country.
The usual melodrama ensues, with Carlos Saldaña as the iron fist of authority and Michael Kevin Darnall as the hapless petitioner appealing to the gatekeeper’s humanity. The chess match is evenly played by the actors, each attuned to shifts of power as they swap tales of atrocities, and Alves sets a cinematic tone that’s not too hokey as lights filter through the slats of the cage. It’s barely an hour long and with a pleasurable twist finish that makes the entire composition easy to admire.
Sticking to “The Odyssey,” on the other hand, makes Naomi Iizuka’s “Anon(ymous)” feel instructional, which may simply be in its bones; its premiere was at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. It’s too easy to disengage when you’re confronted with such broad caricatures as a privileged American kid thoughtlessly lording her flat-screen plasma TV over the young refugee who’s just washed up on her rich daddy’s beach.
As the 90-minute play meanders through Homer’s outline it becomes a melodrama of victims (namely a separated mother and son) and predators (everyone from the tone-deaf wife of a senator fetishizing exoticism to a brutal sweatshop owner with a taste for overseas mail-order brides). Eirin Stevenson leads the 10-person ensemble as the fairly blank refugee Anon, and the production by the emerging troupe Theatre Prometheus gets a heavy dose of lyricism in director Jon Jon Johnson’s long clotheslines of colorful clothing, suggesting vast numbers of missing bodies at large somewhere on the globe. Haze steams down from the light grid over the vast Silver Spring Black Box theater — more atmosphere as the sentimental quest treks foggily along.
New Guidelines for Peaceful Times, by Bosco Brasil. Directed by Roberta Alves. Costumes, Teca Fichinski; lights, Kyle Grant; sound design, David Crandall. Through Oct. 28 at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th St. NW. $30-$40. 202-248-0301 or spookyaction.org.
Anon(ymous), by Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Jon Jon Johnson. Set, Eric McMorris; lights, Ian Claar; sound, Niusha Nawab; costumes, Robin Weiner. With Noa Gelb, Peter Mikhail, Aron Spillane, Kara Turner, Toni Rae Salmi, Madelyn Farris, Cindy Wang, Tamekia Jackson and Shaquille Stewart. Through Oct. 27 at the Silver Spring Black Box, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. $25. theatreprometheus.org.