Legend, Truth and a Telltale Heart





by: Lisa Reitman-Dobi



Mata Hari. The name conjures up the iconic image of a seductive spy, a shrewd operative who lured officers into her bed in order to ferret out military information during WWI.   I thought I knew about Mata Hari. I was wrong.


In her riveting work, “Almost Mata Hari,” Eva Dorrepaal reveals a deeply sentient woman, an unconventional free spirit whose choices were governed not by a calculating intellect, but by unyielding passion.


Dorrepaal plays Ava, a playwright and actor struggling to write and enact the life of Mata Hari. Set in Ava’s basement apartment, the performance space could have as easily been a large dressing room, crammed with costumes and objects, a colorful disarray that kindles one’s curiosity. From the moment Ava enters the room, her high energy, staunch determination and a palpable search for resolution fill the space. Determined to master the role, a restive Ava uses a mini-cam for each “take.” When she sets up for “Take 93,” the story behind the play takes off.


Clearly, Ava’s process has been a complex one. And it becomes increasingly byzantine as her own story and that of Mata Hari reveal penetrating commonalities. Uncanny similarities force Ava to relive crucial experiences, shedding light on both women’s choices, proclivities and the ensuing consequences.


Born Margaretha Geertrude Zelle, Mata Hari reinvented herself after divorcing her abusive husband and moving to Paris. To divorce in 1902 demonstrated a significant break with convention. In fact, she tossed convention entirely, casting aside everything from her old, mundane world.   Along with her new name, she created a new persona: she was Mata Hari, celebrated exotic dancer and courtesan.   She took many lovers, including top tier WWI officers from both sides of belligerent countries. They supported her lavish tastes, while she indulged in her penchant for “bad boys in uniform.” While legend casts her as a cunning spy, she had no interest in war games. She was interested in living as a flirtatious buccaneer, an independent woman in a man’s world. At heart, she was an adventuress and a fool for love. And in the end, she was deceived and executed.


Ava’s identification, with key elements in Mata Hari’s life and personality, trigger a powerful exploration of two unconventional, spirited women, romantic adventurers with open hearts, living in a man’s world that closed ranks against them.


Dorrepaal brings to life two women so exquisitely individuated that the memory of this magnetic, one-woman play lingers as though performed by a diverse, brilliant cast. As Ava, Dorepaal emanates a sweetness, her features softening with memory, her trusting affect poised to believe. Her Ava is the embodiment of magical thinking. She radiates a light, effectively bringing sunshine into a basement room. Conversely, Dorrepaal’s Mata Hari is unequivocally tough, a self-assured and self-defined femme fatale. Her portrayal of Mata Hari is so meticulous that in this hard-hitting trailblazer, one can detect profound yearning, singular loneliness, and deep, deep wounds. Mata Hari too, carries her own brand of magical thinking: a protective shield for a vulnerable dreamer plagued by darkness.


Throughout the play, Dorrepaal creates the presence of additional characters including Ava’s protective aunt and her former lover, Drazen Zabek. Her voice, mannerisms and facial expressions manifest a true narcissist in action.


“Almost Mata Hari” tackles issues such as loss, betrayal and guilt, but Dorepaal’s wit and timing strike the ideal balance with lightness and laughter. Self-effacing humor, dark comedy, impromptu witticisms and hilarious impersonations add yet more color to this kaleidoscopic tribute to love, truth and creativity.


I thought I knew about Mata Hari. Now, I do.



Photos by Farnaz Taherimtolagh.

Eva Dorrepaal is a Dutch playwright and actress best known for her leading roles in the films of director Edwin Brienen, known as the “Dutch Fassbinder.” “Almost Mata Hari” was co-directed by Kirsten Kinneging and Myrtle Amons, both of the Netherlands. Costume design is by Diana Gentleman, and Francisco Cardozo does the lighting.

“Almost Mata Hari” will run at Theater for the New City through January 24. Performances are at 8 pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 3 pm on Sundays. Tickets are $10 for general admission.

For more information, visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Theater for the New City is an intimate venue that fosters original works and encourages new playwrights. In a world of large, corporate-subsidized productions, TNC has a refreshingly personal feeling. Please check out this and other productions at this gem of a theater.