Theater review by Jenna Scherer
European fiction is full of stunning displays of white privilege, perhaps few more icy than in Albert Camus's The Stranger. The renowned existentialist novel centers on the cold-blooded murder committed by the French protagonist, Meursault, of a nameless man simply known as "The Arab." And while we delve deep into Meursault's psyche and his reasons (or lack thereof) for the random act of violence, we never find out anything about the unnamed Algerian.
A noble, if misguided attempt to rectify that narrative injustice is the subject of The Strangest, Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh's story of the man behind the epithet. Her play makes the murder the endpoint of an entirely different story, about an Algerian family suffering underneath the yolk of French colonialist oppression. The concept is a potent one. The execution? Not so much. Shamieh uses it as a jumping-off point of a tale-within-a-tale that has a lot of big ideas but a sloppy way of getting them across.
Director May Adrales's semi-immersive production is set inside an Algerian coffee shop complete with pillows, cushy rugs and actual coffee for the audience to sip. A storytelling competition is underway, and Umm (Jacqueline Antaramian) is telling the tale of her three sons, her wayward niece and the Frenchman's bullet that will inevitably tear the family asunder.
Unfortunately, Shamieh’s characters are presented as types, a quality badly accentuated by most of the performances. That may be the show's conceit—this is a fable with broad universal reverberations. But that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to watch the thief brother leer and flick his switchblade, or the artist brother fall melodramatically to his knees, or the noble-minded father give an inspirational speech backed by too-cinematic music. And a French villain, whose hat is a giant gun, literally only speaks using the word "Bang."
Hardest to stomach is the niece, whose every action and motive is filtered through the archetype of a 1950s femme fatale. The framing story of The Strangest has an overtly feminist message—women not permitted to tell their own stories—yet here is a character who is little more than a collection of misogynist tropes.
There's plenty to recommend The Strangest in spirit: examining the erasure of Arab-world stories by white colonists, and the erasure of women's stories by male raconteurs. But in practice, Shamieh’s tall tale never quite connects.
4th Street Theatre. By Betty Shamieh. Directed by May Adrales. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Apr 1.