Review: Illegal – Auburn Scallon

Show: Illegal
Venue: Underbelly Cowgate
Star rating: ***
Reviewer: Auburn Scallon

Presenting the parallel visa struggles of a white American woman in the UK and a Guatemalan woman attempting to enter the US is an ambitious task. While Illegal seems well intentioned in finding the similarities in these stories, the narrative could benefit from a deeper acknowledgement and exploration of white privilege. Communities living abroad often bond over visa struggles, but Illegal doesn’t quite strike the right tone of how drastically the stakes vary across these communities.

Jessica Phillippi, actress and writer of the show, based the story of attempting to stay in the UK largely on personal experience. Her character explores various visa options that show the potentially frustrating choices of trying to live in a country other than your own, particularly in a financially precarious field like acting. The desperate descent of her character’s actions shows a willingness to break the law for a chance at love and career fulfillment. On its own, this could have illuminated areas for improvement in the UK immigration process while providing entertainment, particularly for sympathetic Fringe audiences.

The second storyline, played by Elena Larios, is an increasingly common narrative of even well-educated citizens of Central America leaving home to find prosperity and financial support for their families. This storyline was inspired by the real-life tale in the news of an immigrant woman, named at the end of the show. Larios is faced with many painful and potentially life-threatening choices to reunite her family. Alternatively, one of Phillippi’s decisions to overstay seems partially made to continue flirting with a man at a bar.

There are certainly elements that Illegal does well: the actors seem comfortable switching between multiple roles, the staging utilizes the space in creative ways, and columns of paperwork surrounding the stage work well as a visual metaphor. Subtle accessory changes in costume to represent different characters could stand to be more obvious or consistent, but largely serve the intended purpose. It was the content of the story, not the execution, that made me uncomfortable as an audience member.

The most unsettling experience was these two storylines effectively being treated as equals. As the scene changes came faster and faster towards the end, I found myself deeply invested in Larios’ journey and increasingly annoyed whenever her story was interrupted to see whether Phillippi’s character had to return home. It’s not that Phillippi’s story doesn’t deserve to be heard, but raising the issue of a political humanitarian emergency that demands international attention doesn’t leave much for an individual struggle for privileged personal fulfillment.

There is a moment in the play where the white American woman is giving English lessons to a group of Latin American yard workers and realizes that her students are all missing friends and family from another country “just like me.” This embodied the false equivalency that I felt running throughout the show. An impassioned poetic rant towards the end of the hour named characters from multiple nationalities in the waiting room of an immigration office, reminding me how much more I wanted space given to their compelling and often untold stories on a modern play about immigration.

Illegal – tickets available here 
Underbelly Cowgate
August 1-25 (not 12th)
12.00pm (1 hour)

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