Before you read any description—heck, before you read this review—let me assure you that Phillip Howze's Frontiéres sans Frontières is a comedy. You might get the wrong idea when you see that it's about refugee kids playing in rubble, learning to beg, gaming the World Health Organization and succumbing to any number of predators. You might expect a downer. But Howze's exciting piece is actually a savage burlesque, a clear-eyed bouffon treatment of war. That WHO worker (Ceci Fernandez), for instance, brandishes a giant prop needle that she probably got in clown college.
When we meet them, three plucky children—Win (Emma Ramos), Noon (Mirirai Sithole) and the “baby” Pan (Tony Vo)—have found quite a bit of joy in their dangerous, ramshackle surroundings. (Don't try to figure out if we're in Congo or Calais. “Here is here.”) Chatting in a pidgin language we don't always understand, the three enjoy the parade of moronic foreigners who swan through on the misery tour: a faux-Bieber (Mitchell Winter) doing charity concerts, a mime (Winter again) here to cheer up the war-torn masses. They find “gifts” everywhere, whether by pickpocketing them or getting them from swarming adults. A teacher (Sathya Sridharan) offers tea; a terrifying militiaman (Rachel Leslie) offers a gig as a child soldier; a creepy developer (Reggie D. White) offers candy. They don't see that many of these presents come with a cost. Instead, “I speak Eng-a-leesh!” crows Win, the Peter Pan of the little lost trio. When you have nothing, even picking up a new word feels like a prize.
Dustin Wills directs an incredible cast. Leslie, Winter and Fernandez are crackerjack commedia performers, and Ramos should win a prize for this. The set by Mariana Sanchez Hernandez keeps springing little surprises out of its seemingly inert trash; I found myself sometimes laughing in sheer delight at it. But the unfair thing about experiencing shows in forward-moving time (damn our limited minds!) is that the endings always matter too much. It's the Mamma Mia! effect—whatever the quality of the show that has gone on before, if the curtain call is really good, you leave singing. Unfortunately, Howze and Wills reverse–Mamma Mia! themselves. The play, which has been treading a tricky line between humor and horror, collapses. The razor-sharp critique blunts itself on itself: it tries to explain.
In the Frontières’ final 15 minutes, Win's world is rent asunder when an angelic visitor (wearing a halo decorated in McDonalds M's) regales an admiring world with her wealth gospel. This long monologue slows the pace to a crawl, but more importantly, it also dims the show’s brilliance. Win—the adapter, the salesman, the leader, the fool—has been nothing less than a modern-day Mother Courage. Losses do not stop her; we see how awful our world is by her resilient efforts at slogging through it. Howze has already achieved something titanic by telling us that today, Mother Courage is a child. Even Brecht didn't have the steel for that. Unfortunately, Howze falls into a modern playwriting cliché: the show-ending aria, which leads to an exhausted, ambiguous resolution. The play is simply too good to conclude this way. The final image is Win, sleeping under the angel's watch. I rebelled at that. The Win we know would keep hustling. The Win we'd truly ache for stays awake.
Bushwick Starr (Off-Off Broadway). By Phillip Howze. Directed by Dustin Wills. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 50mins. One intermission. Through Mar 25. Click here for full ticket and venue information.