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How City of No Illusions explores the connection between death and immigration
In City of No Illusions, a young Syrian refugee named Saad takes a job in a Buffalo, NY funeral parlor run by two elderly sisters. As he makes his way around the coffins, he's shocked to come face-to-face with Agent Ramirez from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Saad is played by Eden Zane, who emigrated from Syria to the U.S. with his family a dozen years ago. According to the actor, if they had waited until now, they probably wouldn't have been able to come. "After the Muslim ban, immigration policy has changed," he says. Agent Ramirez is portrayed by Sam Khazai, who emigrated from Iran. "I have friends who own restaurants that have been raided by ICE -- it's scary," he says.
The casting of these actors is intentional. "If you're doing a piece about immigrants, you need people who have that experience; you need that authenticity," says Paul Zimet, City of No Illusions' writer and director. Running February 8 to 24 at La MaMa, the play with music is the 57th work created by Talking Band.
The politically minded company was founded by seven artists back in 1974. Three have remained all 45 years: Zimet, who serves as artistic director; his wife of three-plus decades, Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard. While the troupe may be less widely known to audiences than its venerated avant-garde peers such as Mabou Mines and The Wooster Group, Talking Band is beloved in the theatre community and has attracted an impressive array of collaborators over the decades, including the late Elizabeth Swados, Tony winner Julie Taymor and MacArthur "genius" Taylor Mac.
"I remember seeing them and falling in love with their experimental theatre," says Jack Wetherall, who's best known for playing Vic on Showtime's Queer as Folk. In fact, the actor loved the troupe's aesthetic so much, he moved to New York from Stratford, Canada in order to work with them.
In City of No Illusions, Wetherall portrays Daryl, the husband of one of the funeral directors and an aspiring real estate developer. He hopes to build Restland Resorts Condominiums, which the character describes as "luxury vacation villas built around the perimeter of a gorgeous scenic cemetery," thus encouraging the living to actually visit their deceased loved ones.
Zimet was inspired to pen City of Illusions a few years ago after meeting a pair of sisters who ran a funeral parlor in Buffalo. "They talked about what they did -- they had all kinds of stories," he recalls. "They said, 'Maybe you'll write a play about us.'" Around the same time, he heard about an organization in Buffalo called Vive that helps asylum seekers make a refugee claim in Canada, which is just over the border. "Undocumented people are so unwelcome here in the United States, they're trying to get into Canada," Zimet says. "I started to think about borders, and how funeral homes are borders between living and dead. Immigration offers you the chance for another life in a new country. When you're dead, that's also a crossing over."
Thus City of No Illusions features a series of interconnecting story lines that explore that connection between death and immigration, and straddle the line between serious and satirical as Saad and another refugee, Gabriel from El Salvador (played by Veraalba Santa, who grew up in Puerto Rico) seek sanctuary in the funeral parlor while menaced by two ICE agents. A "shadow band" of three musicians -- perhaps from the beyond -- plays an eclectic score composed by Maddow, who also portrays one of the funeral directors. There are also relatively graphic scenes of embalming, based in part on Zimet's own experiences as a Harvard Medical School dropout, with different actors taking turns as the cadavers.
While the immigration angle is timely, death has long fascinated Zimet. There's a line in the show when one of the characters says, "I've stopped counting how many years I've lived, and started counting how many I have left," and the playwright admits he does that himself. "Since I was a teenager, I've been thinking about my mortality, but I am thinking about it more now," he says. "I'm 76, I feel I'm going to live a long life; I'm healthy. But let's say I have 10 years left. You have to think what it is you really want to work on."
Top image: Eden Zane, Goussy Célestin, Marija Kovacevic and Dawn Drake in City of No Illusions. Photos by Suzanne Opton.