Looking at the perils of the promised land

In an ideal world, the Albany Park Theater Project production of "Aqui Estoy" (Spanish for "I Am Here") would be performed before a full session of the U.S. Congress. For not only do "Amor de Lejos" ("Distant Love") and "Nine Digits" -- the two short works in this riveting piece -- go a long way toward humanizing complex immigration issues. They also showcase the wondrous talents of this young company (performers in their teens and early 20s, many with immigrant backgrounds) and the astonishing level of professionalism and originality they've achieved under their devoted mentors.

"Aqui Estoy" was originally created in 2003 under the direction of this nationally recognized troupe's co-founders, David Feiner and Laura Wiley. Wiley died of cancer last June and this production, the first since her death, has been re-envisioned by Feiner and other theater project artists (Colby Beserra, Micah Bezold and Maggie Popadiak), even as it draws heavily on Wiley's brilliant use of movement for storytelling.

In fact, a dream ballet opens "Amor de Lejos," in which a young Guatamalan, Mateo (the supremely natural Samuel Ortiz), bids farewell to his beloved wife, Elena (a fiercely intense Jennifer Nguyen), and heads off to "el norte" for a better living. Once he reaches the United States (after four grueling tries) he plunges into the mad competition for day work, with all the abuses (unsafe conditions, unpaid wages) that come with being illegal. Years pass, and Mateo's connection to his wife becomes more and more distant and dreamlike.

The first-rate ensemble (Angelina Hassler, Brett Lonis, Sergio Ortiz, Elizabeth Cobacho, Ana Ovando and Bezold) expertly conjures the dangers of construction jobs through the use of stylized vocalizations and rhythmic moves. They even build the wood-frame stage for "Nine Digits," whose title refers to those all-important numbers on a Social Security card.

Based on a true story, this work chronicles the endless dilemmas facing Julio (the richly expressive Mourtaza Ahmad Ali), who, as a tot, was brought to the United States from Colombia. Only as Julio matures, and confronts his over-protective mother (Ovando), does he learn he is an "illegal" and that such basics as a driver's license, college financial aid and jobs are closed to him. The promised "better life" becomes a sort of prison as he is continually mocked by a grotesque bureaucrat (the exuberant Jesus Matta).

Scott Neale's muscular set nails reality; the actors' magic expands on it.