Sherlindary Berrios, a junior at Deering High School who arrived in Maine from Venezuela about a year ago, laughs while talking with Melisa Bonetti Luna during a rehearsal of “CarmXn.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sherlindary Berrios stood in the center of the room at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland and stretched out her hand. The fortune teller spoke first in Dari, then Spanish.

“You will drink much water in a foreign land,” she told Berrios.

Berrios was rehearsing the opening scene of “CarmXn,” a reinterpretation of the classic opera by Cape Elizabeth-based arts residency Hogfish. She came to Maine 10 months ago from Venezuela and is now a student at Deering High School. She dreams of becoming an actress and has joined a diverse professional cast for her first role.

Two young theater companies are presenting works in Portland this summer that center on immigrant stories. “CarmXn,” which has three performances starting Wednesday, moves the classic opera from 19th century Spain to the present day at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Sanctuary City,” a play by Martyna Majok about undocumented teenagers in the wake of 9/11, will close the Portland Theater Festival in August.

Both companies said they feel these productions are critically important at this moment. Over 1,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland this year to start new lives in a safer place, and city officials and residents are still grappling with the best response.

“The question of immigration and new American life, it’s coming to a head in our community in new ways that are different from ways that we’ve experienced it in the past,” said Dave Register, who founded the Portland Theater Festival in 2021.


Reza Jalali, executive director of the Immigrant Welcome Center in Portland, agreed that theater is an important tool to tell and hear the stories of New Mainers.

“More than passing laws and regulations, in order to humanize one community or another, art plays a role,” said Jalali. “It really helps us to understand the factors that we might not be aware of.”


Maria Brea has sung the part of Micaëla in the opera “Carmen” 12 times. But never like this.

“It’s more human and more real,” said the soprano, who is based in New York City and in the cast of “CarmXn.”

Edwin and Matt Cahill, husbands and founders of Hogfish who adapted the familiar opera in a new setting, said the original by French composer Georges Bizet was shocking to its early audiences because the title character was a woman who broke convention. She did not wear a corset or shoes, she smoked cigarettes, she lived outside the traditional boundaries of society.


“So we’re going back to those roots,” said Edwin Cahill.

“And asking how does this resonate today in a way that it did back then?” added Matt Cahill.

The cast of “CarmXn” rehearses Friday at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland. The production, set on the U.S.-Mexico border, is an adaptation of the classic opera. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

They decided to explore the concept of boundaries: of geopolitics, gender, genre. CarmXn is an undocumented Afro-Caribbean immigrant, and Don José is an officer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a French-Canadian background. The bullfighter (toreador in Spanish) is recast as a drag performer (named Tori Adore). The traditional score is supplemented by mariachi band orchestration and an electronic flamenco dance party. New dialogue is spoken in English, Spanish, French and Dari (a language spoken in Afghanistan).

Brea, who is originally from Venezuela, said thinking about Micaëla as a multilingual immigrant added a depth to the role that she had never considered before and that she will use in the future.

The characters in this version all seem more complex than the stereotypes that can define them in other productions, she said. Brea also will bring musical influences from her native country to her performance for the first time as she plays the ocarina and sings an Afro-Venezuelan chant.

“Everyone is going to be doing something very interesting and very personal,” she said.



While working on “CarmXn,” Edwin Cahill traveled to volunteer with Abara, a nonprofit that works between El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. Hogfish, which is in its second season, is partnering with that organization to bring “CarmXn” to the border itself in the future. They have been thinking about how that border is far away but still has connections to Maine: through asylum seekers who made that perilous crossing to come here, or the local operations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

With that in mind, they reached out to Jalali at the Immigrant Welcome Center. Jalali met with the cast to help them learn more about the immigrant community in Maine and share his own story as an Iranian Kurd who came to the United States as a refugee. He told them about the words a fortune teller told his mother when he was just a baby: “Your son is going to drink lots of water in a strange land.” His mother wept, realizing her infant would someday be separated from family and country. The cast of “CarmXn” asked Jalali if they could incorporate his story in the opera, and that prophecy will be echoed in the newly written opening scene with Berrios.

Jalali, who also has written a play, worked with Hogfish to find local immigrants who could perform in guest roles. He also will help distribute free tickets to those who could not otherwise afford them. He said New Mainers often face barriers to participating in the local art scene.

Matthew Anchel sings during a rehearsal of CarmXn on Friday. The adaptation of the classic opera explores the concept of boundaries: geopolitical, gender, genre. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“The cost of really accessing art, be it at the museum or the Merrill Auditorium or the concerts, is quite high, and it’s getting higher with this inflation,” said Jalali. “At a personal level and as an advocate for low-income New Mainers, I’ve always been struggling with how a family of four could afford to go and listen to music or go to see a play or go to the community’s museum. We’ve got to address it as a community that we are denying some people because of their income status from accessing art and culture. Art has to be accessible to all.”

The Cahills said they hope their adaptation of “CarmXn” shares a message of hope, community and freedom.


“I really feel like this story has a little something for everyone, whether you’ve grown up in Maine like I did, you’re a gay man, you’re a Latinx community member who’s recently here, or someone from Africa coming here, or someone from Quebec who is visiting for the summer,” said Edwin Cahill. “At the end, we all see how many similarities we have rather than differences and how powerful that can be.”


Meanwhile, rehearsals are underway for “Sanctuary City,” which focuses on two immigrant teenagers in post-9/11 Newark, New Jersey, who have come to rely on each other as they navigate the challenges of being undocumented in America and try to realize their dreams.

The writer, Majok, is a Polish immigrant who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for an earlier play, “Cost of Living.” In “Sanctuary City,” she did not give the lead characters full names (they are “B” and “G”) or specify their countries of origin. She requests only that they not be played by actors of Western European origin.

Shawn Denegre-Vaught and Skye Figueroa during a rehearsal for “Sanctuary City,” which will be part of the Portland Theater Festival. The story centers on two teenagers, brought to America as children, who seek refuge in each other from the harsh environment for immigrants and undocumented people. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Shawn Denegre-Vaught, who plays B, lives in New York and is the son of immigrants from Costa Rica and Mexico. He said he saw humanity in the script that drew him to the characters, and working on this play has given him the opportunity to ask his family questions about their own story that he has never posed before. He described “Sanctuary City” as “a love letter.”

“When I first read the play, I felt myself crying tears of joy to have that recognition and to finally feel represented as someone who loves my culture, my family, and also tears of resentment because of the brutality immigrants must endure,” he said.


Register, the Portland Theater Festival founder, grew up in Cape Elizabeth and returned to Maine from Los Angeles during the pandemic. He aims to bring diverse stories to the festival and sees “Sanctuary City” as a timely piece for Portland. While the state has become more diverse than when he was young, he said, the ongoing debates about how to respond to an influx of asylum seekers remind him that more change is needed.

Director Bari Robinson, left, works with Shawn Denegre-Vaught and Skye Figueroa during a rehearsal for “Sanctuary City.” Robinson is also a founding producer of the Portland Theater Festival. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I look around today, and I sense a lack of nuance still, and we’re talking about nearly 25 years later,” he said. “I wanted to do a play that in its own way contributes and plays a small part in providing a little more nuance to the conversation around immigration in Portland. I wanted the immigrant experience to be represented on stage.”

He plans to partner with local groups to engage the city’s immigrant community in the play and make sure it is accessible to those who want to see it. Also in the audience will be Denegre-Vaught’s family.

“Hopefully, they feel seen,” he said. “I’m doing this play for them too.”

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