By Stanford Friedman
You know it is spring when the English return to 59th Street. Now in its 13th year, Brits Off Broadway has begun at the 59E59 Theaters. They are presenting nine plays through July 13, none of which have been seen on this side of the pond. First up is Echoes, a one-hour two-hander that follows the paths of a couple of 17-year-old girls from Ipswich who leave home in search of a husband and adventure.
But, this is no Wonderful Town; not by a long shot. The two girls, strikingly similar in some ways, vastly different in others, lose their innocence in the most horrific ways imaginable, victimized by violent men while trying to eke out a semblance of empowerment. Plus, ahem, they exist in two separate historical eras, separated by some 175 years. Samira (Filipa Braganca) is a modern day Muslim who, having grown disenchanted with her country and her upbringing, decides to travel to Syria for a husband and for Jihad. Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke) is a smart, Victorian era Christian who, in an effort to avoid spinsterhood, boards a ship to India where, she is promised, there are four men for every woman. However, during the trip, she meets and falls for a brutish lieutenant who is destined not for Delhi, but for Kabul. Thus, Tillie finds herself in the onset of the Anglo-Afghan Wars.
Suffice it to say that pretty much whatever awful things you can imagine happening to women in these scenarios happen to Tillie and Samira. In presenting their plights, playwright Henry Naylor takes a calculated risk that, for the most part, pays dividends. The two characters speak directly to the audience, jutting back and forth with very brief monologues or scenes where the actor speaks both parts of a conversation. This brings the two girls, the two eras and the two faiths into sharp focus. It’s a captivating compare-and-contrast of religious fervor, the perceived duty to procreate, and the will to break free from oppression. It’s also a clever take on time travel. Tillie finds her mate on the high seas, Samira meets hers via Skype. Samira references Kandahar and we are suddenly reminded that the city existed 2300 years before 9/11. The down side to this call and response approach, though, is that while we certainly feel the shock and awe of the girls’ suffering, we might have found even greater compassion if they had presented their tales one at a time, and without the burden of having to portray multiple characters. Not helping matters, ill-fitting references to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been added to the script. Doesn’t Naylor know that Americans go to the theater precisely to avoid thinking of them?
Both actors turn in strong performances. Ms. Houlbrooke is spirited and wry while trying to beat back Victorian propriety. Ms. Braganca paints Samira in various shades of desperation to fine effect. The play’s last line is devastating and she delivers it like an assassin. Meanwhile, clever costuming by Adrian Gwillym exaggerate their differences: Tillie in a white dress that accentuates her shoulders, her hair in curls. Samira in black, traditional garb, hair and shoulders hidden under a hijab. And with no more than a stool and a bench to work with, co-directors Naylor and Emma Buttler make sure that their actors are static only when the words call for it, generating a vibrant pas de deux by employing every staging technique in the book.
ECHOES – By Henry Naylor; directed by Henry Naylor and Emma Buttler.
WITH: Filipa Braganca (Samira) and Felicity Houlbrooke (Tillie).
Set Design by Henry Naylor; Costume Design by Adrian Gwillym; Lighting Design by Ross Bibby; Sofia Montgomery, AEA Stage Manager. Produced by Redbeard Theatre Ltd and Gilded Balloon Productions as part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St., (212) 279-4200, www.59e59.org. Through Sunday, May 1. Running time: 1 hour.