The Refugee Hotel
sends a powerful message

A dark comedy about exile, love and the Canadian resettlement experience

By Byron Toben

The world is miserable, people are evil
We wish to be good, instead of brutal
… But the circumstances are not quite right yet.

Sings Mr Peachum in Brecht Weill’s Three Penny Opera

I thought of the above refrain (harsher in the original German) as Chilean refugees escaped into Canada after the Pinochet coup on September 11, 1973 as portrayed by the prolific Vancouver performer/writer Carmen Aguirre (25 plays, 80 acting credits) in her drama The Refugee Hotel.

Back in the day, when I hosted a monthly play reading group, one of the members, a fine critic, disparaged my selection of what might be called ‘message plays’. “If you want to send a message”, quoted he, “use Western Union.” His own favourites were the works of Tennessee Williams.

My response, then and now, was that all plays have a message waiting.

Some are overtly political, (Waiting for Lefty), some existential (Waiting for Godot), some are even about theatre (Waiting for Guffman). Other works deal with repressed sexuality (Mr Williams) and some throw in everything (Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekov).

The Refugee Hotel WestmountMag.caTeesri Duniya, which has produced this play, has a history of political/social activism since its founding in 1981, with its motto “Change the world one play at a time.”

So it comes with the territory that this genre sometimes seems a shade too strident or black and white to audiences not directly affected.

To others, familiar with works such as Fritz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the combination of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism requires strident responses.

Nevertheless, both Ms Aguirre and Teesri, with the direction of Paulina Abarca-Cantin, herself of Chilean origin, have managed to interject elements of love and even humour into this story of various refugees/exiles descending upon a hotel in Montreal in early 1974.

Seven of the cast are of Hispanic origin themselves, who, surprisingly, did not know each other until selected upon audition for this show. Now they do.

Pablo Diconca (Uruguayan origin) plays the father to two children, Juan Grey and Marina Tayler (born in Columbia). The mother Gilda Monreal (Chilean origin), suffered extreme torture and mutilation in interrogation camps run by ex-Nazi Germans in rural areas of Chile.

Braulio Elicer portrays another traumatized victim of brutal torture. (When will proponents of torture, or ‘enhanced interrogation’, learn that not only does it not work, it creates martyrs and revengers for the future?) He and Shanti Gonzales (Mexican-Indian origin), who portrays an orphan whose parents were dragged away and ‘disappeared’, both attempt suicide.

Ziad Ghanem (of Lebanese origin) adds both tragic and comic elements as a ship stowaway who left a girlfriend behind.

Vera Wilson Valdez (from Mexico) portrays a shy mute survivor.

The three non-Hispanic actors in the cast are:

The Refugee Hotel WestmountMag.caCharles Bender, who portrays a Canadian NGO activist helping persecuted Chileans. He speaks in Pidgin English when talking with the unilingual refugees as a theatrical device to avoid sur titles and how his fractured Spanish must have sounded to their ears.

He is aided by Sally Singal, as a well-meaning but flighty supporter, herself being a Jewish-Hungarian refugee from the 1956 uprising.

Craig Francis is the busy receptionist at the hotel who gradually warms to the bothered ensemble.

Personal relationships, feelings of guilt and loss, temporary respites from national music and drinks all mix in this sprawling almost Robert Altman-like concoction. While not as focused as Ariel Dorfman’s wonderful three-hander, Death and the Maiden, The Refugee Hotel is well worthwhile.

What Happened After

The CIA-inspired Pinochet coup against the Allende government, the first democratically elected socialist government in the Western hemisphere, ended in 1990, when a Spanish prosecutor got the British government to arrest him. Who would have thought?

In the meantime, 3,000 murdered, 30,000 tortured and 200,000 forced into exile. Pinochet himself died in Santiago in 2006 at 91.

Teesri Duniya’s production of The Refugee Hotel continues at the Segal Centre until November 13.
There are audience talkbacks after each performance.
More information and tickets at 514 739-7344 or go to

Images: Jean-Charles Labarre

Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club

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