‘Jungle’ evokes emotional immersion in refugee camp

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

Salar (Ben Turner, right) and Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati) hit a flash-point in “The Jungle.” Photo by Little Fang.

I’ve seen dozens of plays “in the round,” 360-degree showcases with audiences surrounding actors, but never anything like the physical, emotional, in-your-face immersion of “The Jungle.”

I’ve seen scores of plays that honed in on cataclysmic migrant stories, but never anything that ramrodded the weariness, exasperation and anger of “The Jungle.”

I’ve seen hundreds of plays inspired by true events that made me feel impotent about solving a “human rights crisis,” but never anything that so clearly evoked other chaotic situations worldwide — including at the Southern U.S. border with Mexico.

“The Jungle” demanded compassion despite my never being trapped in a hellish Limbo within a refugee camp forced to choose between collaboration or resistance. Still, the epic 2¾-hour production at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco made the action onstage and in the aisles so real (except for a couple of preachy monologues) it was impossible for me to walk away unmoved.

Or wrench the play from my mind for hours afterward.

It’s certainly not “Wicked,” even though it contains scattered moments of humor and musical relief.

“The Jungle,” which many might see as agitprop, is about a short-lived, self-governing society that emerged in a sprawling refugee camp with that name in Calais, France, where about 8,000 from 25 countries temporarily lived on a former landfill site while fleeing war and persecution.

Insecurity was rife.

Because nearly every day brought renewed threats of eviction by the French government.

As well as another dream of “a good chance” to escape to England, a mere 22 miles across the channel but a universe away.

The un-subtle play was penned by a couple of Joes, Murphy and Robertson, who’d founded Good Chance Theatre in a geodesic dome in the refugee/migrant camp in 2015, where they lived for seven months.

“By putting such a heartbreakingly human face on a story too often told through statistics, ‘The Jungle’ manages to provide us with an incredible evening of theater and a moral imperative for our times,” contends Carole Shorenstein Hays, Tony Award-winning San Francisco producer and president of the Curran.

It succeeds.

At least ninety-five percent, I’d say.

With the aid of stellar performances from an ensemble cast of two dozen (including two who lived in the camp), which drew an instantaneous standing ovation opening night, and an extraordinary set by Miriam Buether that helps illustrate a daily life and a constant struggle to get along with “the other,” Islamic prayers, and melodic celebrations.

And costumes designed by Catherine Kodicek that aided its authenticity quotient.

And much of the audience sitting on backless, wooden benches crisscrossed atop wood chips in the middle of the tumult so it can’t escape the raw sensations that belted it in the face like a torrential rainstorm.

The distressed atmosphere hit me as soon as I entered — the roar of overhead warplanes heightening the impact of rooms with worn cots and shelves stocked with life-saving dry foods and bottled drinks.

The immersion continued when one costumed Middle Easterner offers me chai tea in a Styrofoam cup and another hands me a flyer with Arabic script that says, “Emergency Meeting…to talk about another proposed eviction of The Jungle — Please spread the word!”

The play, directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin and first performed in Britain, is narrated by Safi al-Hussein (Ammar Haj Ahmad), an optimistic Syrian refugee. Among the characters he recalls are Salar (Ben Turner), a never-say-die Afghani café owner; Okot (John Pfumojena) a Somali 17-year-old from Darfur who tries to flee every night; a perky kid, Little Amal (Zara Rasti); a Brit desperate to help, Beth (Rachel Redford); and Boxer (Trevor Fox), a Newcastle drunk whose ex has barred him from seeing his kid.

Once a decade, if that, a theatrical production pulls off the gasp-inducing, sensory-overloaded grasp of “The Jungle” — which left me utterly frustrated, wondering if there’s anythingI can do the help mitigate the horrors being inflicted on so many human beings today.

And maybe — though the play shies from mentioning Trump or America — even help find a way to stop our Liar-in-Chief from keeping his boots on the necks of immigrants.

“The Jungle” plays at A.C.T.’s Curran Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through May 19. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 1 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets: $25 to $165. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →