Review: Shotgun’s ‘The Claim’ has a powerful story to tell

There’s so much hurt that comes with viewing Shotgun Player’s extraordinary production of Tim Cowbury’s staccato script “The Claim” but it’s not pain that makes its way to the surface at the onset. That throbbing is something realized over time, when we discover what the most vulnerable asylum-seeker can have if they provide the biggest helping of trauma possible to whatever government official hears them out.

Serge (Kenny Scott) tells his story to multiple UK officials in “The Claim” at Shotgun Players in Berkeley. (Cover photo) “A” (Soren Santos) converses with “B” (Radhika Rao) as Serge awaits the result of the conversation. (Benjamin Krantz photos)

“The Claim,” running through Sunday, Nov. 7, starts off as something that is hopeful, a dish served to the audience that may become a fulfilling hot meal that nourishes those who have witnessed atrocities in their native land. Yet as time moves through the rugged, static space of a United Kingdom examination room, our hope of savory disappears, with only the potential remnants of survival our new mission. These seekers are at the mercy of who hears, and hopefully believes, their story.

We see so much through the eyes of the thoughtful and jovial Serge (Kenny Scott), a man who has escaped his home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the UK. The alliance between Serge and a government official who we learn is his translator “A” (Soren Santos) seems promising, two fellas yuckin’ it up as they enjoy “snakes” and share commonalities of their past.

The energy shifts mightily when the second official “B” (Radhika Rao) enters and immediately seems to be a bit more grizzled and a lot less sentimental. B reflects many attitudes of those who keep the keys for others looking for refuge from the bloodshed they may face in their home countries. She is skeptical about Serge’s true motivations, which causes a plethora of mistranslations. Serge is forced to defend himself, but from what exactly?

Director Rebecca Novick’s steady and even-handed pacing is at its strongest in the urgent moments where A is directly translating for B, while Serge tries to keep his thoughts from becoming a muddled mess. We see the miscalculations and dissonance in real time because we are in on the secrets, given the opportunity to make clear judgements.

Just look at how pained Serge’s face is when he sees and feels everything disappearing. Is his story not pathetic enough for these officials? Has he messed things up due to his language barrier? Did he put himself in a position where the pressure cooker of this life and death meeting has exploded in his face?

The play creates a clear bias since we learn to like Serge – it feels as if he trusts us. Yet the alchemy that we embrace towards him does not give us the salvation we yearn for. Serge’s story is a metaphor for everything that is problematic about asylum opportunities. This system can feel like a veritable pissing contest to judge acceptance based on the most devastating story.

“‘The Claim’ is at its strongest when it reaches peak levels of processing humanity, leading to devastating heartbreak.”

Consider even a passage when B presses Serge to examine if he’s part of a militia. Serge’s response is simply, “Militia, yes. I think,” when in fact, that has not been the case. Can B move on through this space and ignore what she thinks she heard? The comedy in the play comes straight from the annals of absurdity, everyone becomes so consumed with the elements of escape. Could someone like Serge have possibly left such a violent place without being violent himself?

But Serge is not informed by the violence he witnessed, embracing the beauty his new home blesses him with. “I live at 93 Margolis Road. My room is at the back of the house. Outside the window, there’s a garden with a small tree. Sometimes when I get back into bed, there are birds singing in the tree, even while it’s still dark.”

This moment devastates, a discovery Serge believes is a zero-sum game. He learns quickly that the system he must penetrate is broken and fully rigged against him, but as he so succinctly puts it, “I’m not the victim or the villain you want me to be.”

Each performer plays clear intentions. Santos portrays the advocate we need him to be, while Rao is sharp as she guards strongly against getting swept up in another asylum-seeker story. And Scott builds from the inside out, fighting and clinging to any shred of hope as we see his story at the precipice of being filed into one category. Novick’s staging, which allows us to focus on the text, is economically effective. Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s scenic design is powerful by showing no warmth whatsoever.  The sly lighting design from Michael Oesch, which keeps the audience illuminated for most of the show, brings forth a terrific, metaphoric end.

“The Claim” is at its strongest when it reaches peak levels of processing humanity, leading to devastating heartbreak. Put another way – when A and B look at Serge with a skeptical eye as he yearns for safety, they miss the part where he’d be just as satisfied with a glass full of water.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Shotgun Player Presents “The Claim”
Written by Tim Cowbury
Directed by Rebecca Novick
The Word: This three-hander is effective, finding its legs mightily when each character encompasses the stage together. A fierce examination of narratives that asylum-seekers must have in order to save their own lives.
The Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Through Nov. 7
Tickets range from $7 – $27
For tickets and info, call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org

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