Wednesday, April 26, 2017

179. Review: ANGEL & ECHOES (seen April 25, 2017)

“Brides, Bullets, and Beheadings”

Finding a solution to the situation in Syria and to the horrors being committed by ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, or whatever you wish to call it, continues to baffle the world’s leaders, in spite of the bloated rhetoric of Donald J. Trump who famously said he “knows more about ISIS than the generals.” Given the uncertain future of the war, any playwright wishing to put his dramatic boots on the ground and take up arms against the Syrian civil war already starts with one hand tied behind his back.

Rachel Smyth, Serena Manteghi. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
British playwright Henry Naylor, better known for his work in comedy, is one of the few to try his hand at confronting the problem, as represented by two long one-acts, “Angels” and “Echoes,” neither of which dares to suggest any sort of solution—an impossible task—but both of which find a common ground in dramatizing the effect of the jihadist patriarchy (not to mention the British imperialist one) on women. 

“Echoes,” seen last season in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, when it was the sole play on the bill, kicks off this two-play program in the larger Theater B. The play, now directed by Emma Butler, who co-directed it with Naylor last year, was first produced at the Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to London’s West End. The script appears to have added a few new topical references and its scenic environment, which originally had the title splashed across the back wall, has been reduced to nothing but a black box, a stool, and a bench. Two excellent new actresses, Rachel Smyth and Serena Manteghi, take on the roles, respectively, of Tillie and Samira.

While I continue to have reservations about the play, I found it more compelling this time around, possibly because of Manteghi’s unusually expressive performance. What follows is a slightly revised version of my original review from April 2016, which can be read here.

Naylor’s interestingly topical, if overly schematic, one-hour play presents two women’s thematically similar stories, side by side. Each is a monologue delivered straight to the audience, interrupted only when the other woman speaks. The monologues incorporate whatever dialogue the stories require. Bleak as the stories are, Naylor has a way with words, and provides enough laughs to keep the piece afloat. Only for a fleeting second at the end do the characters connect.

When we meet these bright, educated, young women, they’re 17 and living in Ipswich, England. However, the fair-skinned Tillie lives in the mid-19th century, while the olive-skinned Samira is our contemporary. Tillie is Christian; Samira is Muslim. Tillie wears a lovely, white, Victorian-era dress, with a scoop neckline, while Samira is garbed head to toe in traditional, black, Muslim garb, only her face visible under her hijab.

Tillie, wishing to produce children for Britain’s Christian empire but disappointed by her local prospects, decides to journey to India with the Fishing Fleet, the name given to the considerable exodus British women made to hunt for husbands in India, where thousands of men had migrated to serve under the Raj. She meets a military officer en route and, despite signs of his obtuseness, marries him. He’s soon stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, where Tillie’s belief in Christian values collides with the maggoty rot (a frequently used metaphor) of British imperialism, whose worst elements are embodied in her brutish husband.

Simultaneously, we discover that Samira, daughter of Syrian refugees, has been radicalized because the tabloid press ignores Muslims in favor of sensationalistic news, and politicians like the xenophobic Nigel Farage hold power. Her accent, language, and behavior could be those of any English teenager, but she decides to abandon her middle-class life and sneak off with a friend to the ruins of Raqqa, Syria, to marry a jihadist soldier she’s been introduced to on Skype. There she thinks she’ll help to build a caliphate. Like Tillie, her marriage is a rude awakening to the cruelty of the man she married and the fanatical religious ideals he stands for, and she decides to make a bolt for freedom.
Rachel Smyth, Serena Manteghi. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Playwright Naylor’s heart is in the right place, from a historical, political, and feminist standpoint; his wish to show two women separated by 175 years both trying to butt heads with the political, sexual, marital, and religious injustices of their particular times is a good one, as is his point that Western barbarity toward colonized subjects is not far removed from the excesses of ISIS. But, while Tillie’s story could certainly have happened to a specific individual, it’s hard to accept it as representative of what Victorian women underwent when joining the Fishing Fleet. 
Serena Manteghi, Rachel Smyth. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Samira’s story, also replete with melodramatic elements, rings slightly truer because we read of girls like her who have abandoned their middle-class lives in the name of jihad only to be disillusioned, risking their lives in an attempt to return home. Whatever one may think of Tillie's fate, given the limited access she would have had in Victorian Ipswich to information about the worst aspects of British imperialism, it’s hard to fault her for the adventurous spirit inspired by her quest for a spouse, even if she should have known better than to choose the lout she weds.

Samira, though, isn’t given strong enough reasons for her too-rapid radicalization; while it’s true that many naïve girls do seek the paradise of jihad over the comforts of Western life, Samira seems too smart not to have known that soldiers like her Syrian spouse-to-be enjoy cutting off people’s heads and blowing them to bits, in addition to their erratic sexual proclivities. Tillie didn’t have the Internet; Samira does. Whatever idiocy other Western-bred Muslims may display in going off to Syria, it simply doesn't compute for this particular girl. The result seems to be a convenient but false equivalency between the two women’s stories. A scarier approach might have been for Samira to overcome her initial hesitancy and, like the friend with whom she went to Syria, follow through on the radical path she'd begun.  
Serena Manteghi, Rachel Smyth. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Both actresses do lovely work but Manteghi is especially vivid in her desperation, anger, and defiance. This is only natural given the nature of Samira’s character as a present-day Muslim girl whose proclivities allow for a wider emotional range than we associate with refined Victorian young ladies like Tillie. 
Avital Lvova. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“Angel,” directed by Michael Cabot, is an hour-long monologue exceptionally well played by the athletically lithe Avital Lvova, a lightly accented, London-based actress born in Russia and raised in Berlin. Dressed like a man in an olive-colored wife-beater, fatigues, and combat boots, she convincingly embodies Rehana, a mysterious Kurdish woman and law student, whose valiance as an anti-ISIS fighter earned her a semi-legendary status as the Angel of Kobane, a town in North Syria.
Avital Lvova. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Naylor’s play, written in bursts of machine-gun-like dialogue, tells Rehana’s story in breathlessly dramatic terms, combining her actual experiences with those of other women, thus admittedly being an embellishment of her legend. She tells of her life before the civil war growing up as a farmer’s daughter, her unwillingness to continue her father’s work, her father’s showing her how to shoot, her bookish interest in studying the law, her flight with her mother from ISIS, her return in an attempt to find her father, her capture and sale in a sex market to an ISIS leader, her shift from a reluctance to kill to a sniper renowned for shooting 100 enemies, and how she bravely faced the fate that she became famous for (although still not certain).
Avital Lvova. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This action-packed story, while it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know about the evils of the Islamic State, makes for gripping theatre. Lvova, rapidly shifting voice and manner to represent an array of other characters, is the embodiment of female empowerment. Lvova makes her as badass as any female superhero, a Lara Croft of the Middle East, and all on a mostly bare set with nothing but a barrel and lighting shifts for dramatic support.
Avital Lvova. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Angel & Echoes may not know as much about ISIS as President Trump (who does?) but it knows how to make vital theatre out of nothing more than a space, a well-written story about a provocative subject, and persuasive acting.  


59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th  St., NYC

Through May 7