Alas, nothing is so taxingly certain as man's inhumanity to man, and it's difficult to get such tales to grab and hold the public's attention. The University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre's ambitious City of Asylum aims at hearts, minds and all the senses with a multimedia "stage performance," so labeled by Cynthia Croot, theater-faculty member. She conceived and directed the chapters of this one-act, which shares snapshots of the lives and works of four writers who defied death and dictators in their home countries before finding shelter with the titular Pittsburgh nonprofit. With an amazingly talented undergraduate cast and a highly imaginative design team, Croot creates an absorbing and often entertaining experience.
Asylum presents the quartet in reverse chronological order, ending with possibly the greatest poet to be hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, and certainly the most heartening figure in this production. Huang Xiang (a cheerfully convincing Weiqi Li), a post-revolutionary giant in China, is perhaps best known to English-speaking locals for his "House Poem," the glorious façade of his former home on Sampsonia Way. After a stigmatized childhood and long life of hardships, Xiang has triumphed with poetry of ethereal beauty.
Two young actors step into the spotlight for El Salvadoran author/essayist Horacio Castellanos Moya: Connor Shioshita Pickett as the self-aware writer and Kyle Mark Ryan as his outrageously funny literary creation. Similarly, Melissa Italiano and Chelsea Faber create Burma's Khet Mar as the happy child in the countryside and the intellectual rebel tortured for her political activism and writing. Lucy Clabby, a remarkably poised freshman, starts the narrative with the story of current writer-in-residence, Israel Centeno of Venezuela.
Croot and her directing team (grad students Vivian Appler and Ric Walker, undergrad Julie Anne Evans) mix biographical snippets with excerpts from novels, poems, etc. Julie Ray creates a versatile set with a few pieces of stage furniture and the evocative lighting design of Annmarie Duggan. Andrew Sours' sound design and stage manager Kait Samuels complete the theatrical picture.