A set of red curtains at the end of a hallway reveals a small, dim room blanketed with Persian rugs, with pots of Turkish coffee and demitasses set up on wooden stools in each cornerand decorative pillows scattered across the floor. The audience sits around the perimeter of the room on wooden benches and is invited to help themselves to the coffee. This Arabian coffeehouse setting is the first impression of Betty Shamieh’s The Strangest, and beautiful aesthetic is only the surface of what makes it memorable.
The Strangest is inspired by The Stranger, Albert Camus’s 1942 absurdist novel about a French colonial man who senselessly guns down a native Algerian man. Also set in French Algiers, The Strangest tells the other side of that story: not only the background of Camus’s victim, known simply as “the Arab,” but the story of his family, his culture, and the generations of his people’s oppression which shaped his life, his identity, and ultimately his death. The Strangest is produced by The Semitic Root, “an artistic collective of Arabs, Jews, and activists of other backgrounds based in America who are committed to creating innovative and experimental theatrical work that challenges assumptions about race, cross-cultural dialogue, and war.” Shamieh responds to Camus’s absurdism with a centuries-old style of storytelling and a little absurdism of her own, exemplified in the only French colonial character. With a ridiculously large handgun for a hat, the nameless character can only converse using the word “bang.” Some characters can understand him, but some hear only mockery and, yes, gunshots.
The play is told in the Arabic storytelling tradition: a storyteller in a café, recounting a tale for an audience who will judge and review them. Our storyteller is an old Algerianwoman named Umm, played by Jacqueline Antaramian with all the charm and vigor of a modern-day Scheherazade. Antaramian bursts through the curtains and into the café, instantly in command of her role and of the audience. Umm lays out the foundations of her story: a romance and a murder mystery which leads to the death of one of her three sons, but which one? “The good Arab, the harmless Arab, or the bad Arab?” Umm asks us, conjuring her family and summoning music and light with the power of her story like a master puppeteer.
But what is immediately evident from the power of Antaramian’s character is that, though the climax will be a man’s death, this isn’t a story about men. It’s a story about women. As in her play Fit for a Queen, Shamieh proves herself to be an expert in crafting strong, nuanced female leads who cause trouble and refuse to be “likeable” or fit into a predetermined category. Antaramian is the star of the show, handling the heavy and sometimes overwhelmingly complex themes with grace.
Though The Strangest touches poignantly on issues that continue to invade our newspapers, our Twitter feeds, and our everyday lives – for example, violence against women and oppression of people of color – the valiantly hard-hitting themes sometimes proved to be too big and too many when packed into too tight a space. Overall, however, Shamieh’s The Strangest presents a story that is lovingly told and admirably staged. In the cozy makeshift Arabian coffeehouse, you may forget for a while that you’re in the middle of the snowy East Village, and allow yourself to rediscover a modern classic in a wonderfully new, heart-breakingly nostalgic way.