It was an interesting experience returning to Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage after nearly 20 months. A chalk-written message claiming “may your <3 be peaceful” outside the BART station seemed specially scrawled for those of us venturing out again, but it was likely just a coincidence. The theatre’s bar was closed, depriving us of their signature show-themed cocktail. Yet, when we took our seats and observed Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s minimalist and sterile office set for Tim Cowbury’s The Claim (through November 7 at Ashby Stage), the chill in the air from the cranked AC let us know that we were back in Shotgun territory.
Oddly enough, the AC would be shut off during the show, leading to the theatre feeling a bit stifling. It was the sort of thing that wears on one’s focus, which is important when you’re watching a piece that dispenses dialogue at the speed of torrential raindrops.
Perhaps that disorientation was intentional, so as to have us relate to the confusion of The Claim’s Serge (our main character played by Kenny Scott)? He’s from an unnamed country and is seeking refuge in England because his homeland is too dangerous. He spends most of his time conversing with an Englishman simply known as “A” (Soren Santos), who speaks Serge’s language, but whose neurotic “Britishness” makes no sense to the asylum-seeker. At least A gets along with him better than “B” (Radhika Rao), A’s partner-who-hates-being-called-that and is so by-the-book that she’s practically personified red tape.
And these are our players: an immigrant whose requests are very simple, and the two pencil-pushers who hold his fate in their hands. Even the simplest request—a cup of water, say—is a chore for these three, despite a water cooler being right there. One is reminded of American screenwriter James Schamus’ quote about working on the Mandarin-language screenplay for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: “Going from English to Mandarin and back into English is like crossing five oceans… by sail.”
Here, all of the dialogue is in English, but the language barrier is no less present. Much like Mia Chung’s You for Me for You and Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, language comprehension is represented by inflection and interpretation. For instance, when Serge speaks to A, the former uses (what sounds to us like) a normal American accent, but when he speaks to B, his foreign accent is more pronounced. Every character’s frustration only grows when they try to speak as simply as they can, only to realize that the message still hasn’t gotten through to the other person.
And that’s not just proper language, it’s also Serge’s attempts to understand British customs and B attempting to communicate the exact “relationship” she has with A.
All of it is a lot to take in, even for such a brief piece. As I said, the stuffy atmosphere of the theatre made focus occasionally difficult to maintain during the ceaseless rapid-fire dialogue. The Claim was an audience favorite when it played at Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. With such a darkly comic take on the broken refugee system, it’s easy to see why (it would be interesting to see it side-by-side with Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy’s The Jungle). But it occasionally feels unwieldy, as if director Rebecca Novick were holding an industrial-strength fire hose that no one knows how to shut off.
The best compliment I can pay Novick and her talented cast & crew is that when the end arrives, the audience has no trouble sympathizing with the reprieve from the hurricane of activity of the previous 80 minutes. The Claim is an intriguing ponderance on refugee status and a fine showcase for the return of Shotgun before their proper season starts early next year. It’s certainly a well-made piece of theatre, but it may leave you more exhausted than you wanted or expected.
THE CLAIM runs though November 7 at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, Berkeley. More info here.