Review: ‘The Strangest’ Addresses Family and Political Strife With Poignancy in French Algiers
By Mercedes Vizcaino, Contributing Writer, March 20, 2017
Inspired by Albert Camus’ classical novel, The Stranger, and coupled with playwright Betty Shamieh’s fascination of Middle Eastern storytelling cafes, we have a dynamic immersive production about a murder mystery on the brink of the revolution in French Algiers. Upon entering the theatre in the East Village hosting The Strangest, audiences are ushered inside a cozy, traditional Arabic-inspired coffeehouse, with burgundy and gold color schemes, plush pillows and curtains surrounding the wooden seats with Turkish coffee blended with spices (available to sample, if you get to the theater early enough). The setting instantly transports patrons to a time in history full of political strife and oppression.
The play opens with Umm (Jacqueline Antarmian), a female storyteller, attempting to integrate herself into the male-dominated coffeehouses of Algeria. Ms. Antarmian immediately commands the audiences’ attention with a hypnotizing gaze and a compelling narrative. The ensemble cast, comprised of her sons Nader (Juri Henley-Cohn), Nemo (Andrew Guilarte), and Nouno (Louis Sallan), collaborate in unison at times, to portray brothers with distinct personalities. They try to establish their place in current French-Algeria, while vying for their cousin’s affection and hand in marriage, Layali (Roxanna Hope Radja), an outspoken sensual girl desperate to find status in the French and Algerian communities. The actors playing the siblings do a superb job of coordinating the physical aspects of their roles and providing the audience a real depth into their characters. Umm’s husband, Abu (Alok Tewari), a hopeless romantic and passionate patriarch, transitions between his younger and old self with a convincing performance.
Lighting and sound effects play pivotal characters in this play in their own right, illustrating sequence of time, drama and a seamless segue between stories with masterful execution. Without giving any spoilers, there is a scene depicting a violent assault between two characters choreographed in slow motion that’s powerful and instrumental to the arc of the play.
The production taps into a hybrid of cultural themes: Arab storytelling techniques with Western theatrical practices of multi-character scenes in a way that illuminates the strengths and similarities of both performance traditions. I recommend catching this limited engagement of The Strangest, which runs through April 1. To purchase tickets click here.
The Strangest at the Fourth Street Theatre 83 East Fourth Street through April 1, 2017. Written by Betty Shamieh; directed by May Adrales; scenic design by Daniel Zimmerman; costume design by Becky Bodurtha; lighting Design by Aaron Porter; new music and sound design by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes; props master: Theresa Pierce; fight director: Lisa Kopitsky; dramaturg: Katie Premus; production stage manager: Julia Celentano; stage manager: Megan Sprowls. Produced by Semitic Root, with Creative Producer Allison Bressi; Executive Producer Paradox Productions NY, LLC; General Manager: Kaitlin Boland. Cast: Jacqueline Antaramian, Andrew Guilarte, Juri Henley-Cohn, Louis Sallan, Roxanna Hope Radja, Alok Tewari, and Brendan Titley.
Cover: (l. to r.) Juri Henley-Cohn, Andrew Guilarte, Jacqueline Antaramian, Brendan Titley, and Roxanna Hope Radja in ‘The Strangest.’ photo: Hunter Canning Photography.