I begin this review with Elwood Dowd’s carefully thought-through philosophy because I don’t believe this review will be very smart, with a lot of erudite analysis of the themes and techniques Talking Band tackles and applies, but I do fervently hope for it to express what I found to be beyond pleasant — to be touching and human and loving and warm and gracious — in City of No Illusions.
Which is, essentially, the entire play.
City of No Illusions — which, like so much of Talking Band‘s work, took over a year to develop, and then ran for three short weeks at La MaMa, and then will disappear maybe forever as the endlessly bright and questing troop pursues another important topic in their quirky, canny, cerebral, and sincere way — is about borders: between life and death, between legal and illegal status, between people’s minds and hearts, between people. Its title comes from a nickname for Buffalo, a town close to the Canadian border with a mindset well used to hard times. The play centers around two sisters who run a funeral parlor, the immigrants who work for them, the ICE agents who are tracking them, and the Shadow Band that, well, shadows them. There’s also the husband of one of the sisters, who has come up with a brilliant real estate scheme: a cemetery centered in a really desirable time-share resort, so the kids will be sure to visit; the mother of one of the immigrants; and a fearless advocate for the young émigrés, ready to defend their yearnings to breathe free with her last breath.
There is also a lot of humor.
But what there mostly is is abundant demonstration of the gray area that a border signifies. So the husband is not a charlatan, although he is something of a bigot, but also a loving husband, and a basically kind man. And Agent Ramirez is a rather poetic and empathetic and intelligent man who is firmly convinced of the rightness of his job. And even the scarier ICE agent, Benson, has a very human side grounded in fear of mortality. No one is straightforwardly, entirely, good or evil. Everyone is a mix. And everyone, ultimately, even the ones pursuing agendas we don’t like, is trying to do his or her best.
“I’m in countdown mode. I’ve stopped counting how many years I’ve lived and started counting how many I have left. Each day I have to ask myself, ‘was that the best way I could have spent one of my remaining days?’ Usually, the answer is no. But today, I think I can answer yes.”
That quote is from the immigrant advocate, but really, I think, any of the characters could have said it — at least to themselves.
But all these cross purposes, and all these good intentions, and all these duties mean that some will win and some will lose.
Which brings us to the play’s conclusion, straight out of Stoppard’s Arcadia and Gilliam’s Fisher King.