As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, I found Jon and Marissa Edelman’s powerful tragic-comic drama VILLAIN relevant to my own life and to the times in which we all live as Americans.
The events take place in Clear Springs, a small town in 1930s America that is anything but clear. Immigrants called Villainians live in their own Villaintown close by. They dress much like the stereotypical villains in old silent films with top hats and mustaches twirling—hilarious types that would tie young women to the train tracks.
Set against this outlandish and comical backdrop, the play captures the story of many immigrants — Ivo Talaka (played earnestly and with full conviction by Dan Faro), who comes to America from the country of Villainia for a better life, is faced with discrimination, bigotry, and injustice. Murder and corruption enter the plot when Ivo is accused of killing the mayor’s daughter.
The bulk of this play takes place during the Ivo’s trial, which is less about his guilt or innocence than about the anti-immigrant sentiments of the people of Clear Springs, including the mayor and the judge overseeing the trial. Ivo’s passionate and witty defense lawyer (played powerfully by Russell Imwold) presented another buffer to the hard issues tackled in this drama through his sarcasm.
What makes someone more American than someone else? Is it the number of years a person’s family has lived in the U.S.? Ivo’s prosecutor (Steve Norris Jr, convincing in his role as a mean-spirited ideologue) brags, “My family has been here for 200 years.” Ivo replies, “What about 200 years from now?” The prosecutor hits back, “Then mine would have been here for 400 years!”
Ivo does not give up and addresses the plight of Native Americans, an act that causes outrage in the courtroom, stacked with Clear Springs-ians, while some people in the audience nodded their heads as if to agree with sad facts being presented about Native Americans.
The actors on stage mouthed the poisonous prejudice against immigrants with great conviction: “Go back to your own country.” From the witness stand, Ivo says many Villainians came to America for a better life, asking if that is wrong? Almost imploring the audience to answer: “Why do certain people feel that some immigrants are not real Americans?”
When Ivo is being attacked by the prosecutor, another Villainian can take it no more and shouts, “E pluribus unum, out of many one,”—the official motto on US currency—but the plea falls on deaf ears. Ivo’s wife (Taylor Rouillard’s scream at the verdict sent shivers down my spine) holds onto their little daughter for dear life as if even the little kid were on trial as well, an image reminiscent of those of children separated from their immigrant parents by this administration.
Between scenes, the stage lights faded to black to allow for set changes, but this was also used for dramatic effect during gasp-worthy moments. These light changes allowed us to process, at least for a moment, what had happened. There was also narration during this time, which was sometimes hard to hear, especially during set changes, but the content and acting outweighed minor issues such as this one.
The play could be taken as a thinly veiled take on Donald Trump’s America, but it goes beyond that. The persecution of immigrants has been a long-standing issue in U.S. After 9/11 many U.S. citizens openly expressed their anger and animosity toward anyone who looked as if they had come from Southeast Asia or the Middle East. Aggressive xenophobia goes back to the beginning of the U.S. when Native Americans were treated as outsiders and enemies.
It would be easy to be cynical and have this play end on a note of indifference and divisiveness, but VILLAIN ends on a note of hope. The final scene fades to black as “This Land is Your Land” plays. It’s a tear-jerker. The serious message comes through the laughs and that is something I wasn’t expecting and something that made this play stand out. “As long as the stars shine in America,” Ivo writes, suggesting that there is a chance for a better future for everyone. That’s a sentiment all immigrants hope for.
[Jon & Marissa Edelman at Philly Improv Theatre, Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street] September 12-15, 2018; https://fringearts.com/event/villain; phitcomedy.com