… nothing missed …
The opening afternoon of The Nomad was a cold winter Sunday: we made it from the subway to The Flea as falling snow cloaked everything in all-over veils of white to gray … and then the show began. What a burst of color, brightness, and music, what delicious vibrance, as the play carries you to North Africa and its hot deserts.
With insistent percussive music saturated with North African overtones, theatrical effects to delight and astonish, and the superb performance of Teri Madonna in the lead role, it tells the story of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), a well-educated Swiss woman who left Europe to immerse herself in North Africa culture and the Sahara desert. She dressed as a man for the freedom it afforded her, converted to Islam, married an Algerian, wrote about North Africa, and died in a flash flood and died at the age of 27.
The play, in a brief, intense time, takes us through the major episodes of Isabelle’s life. Sydney Blaxill beautifully plays and sings Young Isabelle, breaking out of the cocoon of her life in Switzerland: the Young Isabelle and the grown Isabelle are often on-stage together, the way our young selves are present in our adult lives. We see Isabelle the overcoming the hazards of travel by ship, dazzled on her arrival in North Africa as we are through the vibrance of the scenes, and surviving the death and ceremonial burial of her mother who accompanied her.
Now alone, she finds a desert horse, her first friend in the new world, and her beloved companion – I loved him too as I think everyone in the audience did. This comforting, nuzzling horse she rides is an open-work construction of what look like birth branches, moved choreographically by the ensemble. Talk about suspended disbelief, this horse is a real – or put it this way, he’s as real as the unforgettable horse in War Horse, and a full match in tenderness, strength and character.
Isabelle’s life purpose is to miss nothing – nothing in Algeria anyhow. Through a series of episodes, we visit celebrations, funerals, murderous attempts, romantic love, brutality, tender moments, Colonial suppression, hookah parlors, and the flash flood in which Isabelle dies – an exotic panoply of North African culture and terrain.
Each episode is a distinct creation of free-flowing visual, musical and dramatic imagination. There’s no blurring. For each there’s different music and a different song – and that makes a remarkable twenty-two songs tracing the stages of Isabelle’s life, each a joyous pleasure. And — what takes it far beyond a series of postcards — each episode brings us deeper into the central character of Isabelle. What a bounty of imagination, brilliant theatricality and strong central character this show is! What density! What a gift!
Madonna is fascinating in the role of Isabelle, bringing a kind of rough toughness to the songs and characterization. In addition to Sydney Blaxill as young Isabelle, Madonna is ably supported by a cast that includes Glenna Grant as her mother, Neil Redfield as Slimene, Ryan Stinnet as Vava, and a lavish, talented ensemble of fine singer-dancer-actors.
The Nomad is thought provoking, theatrically stunning, and introduces a compelling new character into the world of our collective imagination.
The Nomad plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through April 6, 2015.