Or, plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose

by Beatrice Williams Rude

Angel & Echoes are two plays with the same theme: the oppression of women. It spans time, geography, ethnicity, race, and religion. Sometimes the oppressor is an outside invader, sometimes home grown. Women have been oppressed in the name of religion, empire, patriotism, and because of their race, ethnicity or class.

The characters in these works are Tillie, an English woman from Ipswich who goes to India to marry and help the British Empire., Tillie, sensitively played by Rachel Smyth discovers the dark side of Empire and takes us increment by increment through her horrified enlightenment. She sees the contempt the British soldiers feel for the Indians, and their women in particular, which leads to casual brutality. She learns her own husband is among the perpetrators.

Fast forward 175 years to current Ipswich where Samira, an idealistic young Muslim girl hears that IS, here called  Daesh, provides for the poor and is trying to build a paradise on earth, so she runs away and joins, only too late discovering the ghastly reality—the use/misuse of women, some only children, where rape is a male prerogative, and only the women are bound in marriage, the men free to take other partners and divorce the women at will. Women endure the total absence of rights without  even a venue for appeal. Women are made slaves. The play ends with Samira  surreptitiously calling her mother in England pleading for help to get home. Samira is splendidly portrayed by Serena Manteghi.

 This material is so depthful, well presented and wrenchingly played one can’t imagine anything more moving.

 But then we get to Rehana, “the Angel of Kobane,” a young Kurdish girl who’s a pacifist, who only wants to go to school and become a lawyer like William Shatner  on Boston Legal. Rehana’s father insists that she learn how to shoot so she can defend herself—in the course of the play she defends him. Rehana is based on an actual woman who killed 100 IS (Daesh) soldiers when they overran her home.

Rape, torture, savagery which Rehana both sees and experiences provide the substance for one of the most brilliant and harrowing performances this reviewer has ever witnessed. Avital Lvova is magnificent. In fact, this production has exhausted my vocabulary of superlatives.

Excellent direction is provided by Emma Butler for Echoes (and yes, history repeats echoing across time), while Michael Cabot’s altogether outstanding as the director of Angel.

There are occasional laugh lines—the confusion about Mariah Carey and Marie Curie. There is much irony: As Turkey is refusing to allow the frantic refugees fleeing Daesh to enter, the mantra is that if they could but get to Europe, Europe would protect them.

Angel & Echoes are two parts of Henry Naylor’s dazzling and provocative  The Arabian Nightmares Trilogy. The plays are part of the Brits Off Broadway festival and were produced by Redbeard Theatre, in association with Gilded Balloon Productions.

This has been a rich theatrical season and there have been several performances by men, seared in one’s memory: Jeff McCarthy in Jeffrey Sweet’s Kunstler and Ed Dixon in Georgie but nothing even approaching from women—until  now. Note to award givers: See this offering and bestow accordingly.

Angel & Echoes is playing at 59E59, Theater B (between Madison and Park Aves, on East Fifty-Ninth  Street). Official opening is April 16 and it will run through May 7.

Each play runs an hour and there’s a 15-minute intermission.

Photos: Steve Ullathorne