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|A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
New York theater seems to have certain rules when it comes to Sharman Macdonald, the Scottish playwright who wrote The Brave in 1988. The first is that she is largely ignored; the second is that first rule can be disobeyed once a year, in the heat of the summer.
Last August, I reviewed her first play, When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout, and was prompted to say that I couldn't imagine why it had taken so long (14 years) for the play to reach this continent. With The Brave, it's not quite as hard to imagine, but it is still rather odd. Here we have a play that presents Macdonald's distinctly female voice on a daunting range of subjects. While this play is neither as clever nor as well-staged as last year's entry, it's nonetheless worthy of our attention.
The many contours of Macdonald's story unfold in such a way that we must remind ourselves that reality is not always simple. As in When I Was a Girl, Macdonald uses a reunion to weave a woman's complicated adolescence into the circumstances, and values, she must now confront in her equally complex adult life.
Ferlie (Kimberly Anne Ryan) is on holiday in Algeria. She hopes to get some rest and relaxation, a respite from the problems in her marriage back in Scotland. She is visiting her sister, Susan (Alice Barden), who came to North Africa as a political refugee. A socialist, Susan was a terrorist on behalf of Scottish coal miners. There are other Scots in the area, including Jamie (Randy Scott) and Robbie (David Marantz), who have come to Algeria for work, and are in the midst of a few drunken days off at Ferlie's seaside hotel.
Ferlie's "problem," the core of The Brave, manifests itself as the play opens. She is standing over the motionless body of a man (John August Baker). Thanks to some martial arts training back in Scotland, she threw him to the ground when he allegedly tried to rape her. Before the play is over, he will be dead and buried in the desert. As Susan makes clear, this is not an insignificant state of affairs: white, female Ferlie, without a mark on her, has taken "direct action against a Muslim in the country of his birth". Against this foreboding backdrop, Macdonald has suspended a mélange of tensions: two estranged sisters performing a clumsy dance of reconciliation; the same pair seemingly needful of two men they have no reason to trust; socialism in its conflicting interpretations; European/North African (Muslim) prejudices; to name but a few.
Director Dave Mower never seems to get his hands around the essential story Macdonald is telling, or on the raw nerve that could have made it explode with emotional intensity. Instead of using humor to create a sense of unease, he permits it to lighten the saga. The two Scotsman are employed mostly as entertainment: singing, dancing and playing guitars through most of the show. Although Ryan occasionally conveys the lack of stability that is called for, she never expresses the sense of terror that would have rendered the play compelling. Barden, even more, is entirely too mellow. Only the resentful bartender, Hocile (Aasif Maandvi), is able to move the affect, both as he aggressively tests the sexual waters with Ferlie and as he reacts to the racist taunts of Jamie. The whole is less than totally satisfying, but good enough to demonstrate Macdonald's premise.
Markas Henry has done a nice job of delivering a sense of both the Algerian beach and desert to the Gothic Atlantic Theatre space, well aided in both regards by evocative sound design as well as the nice lighting efforts of Craig Young. Kevin Brainerd's costume designs are equally up to the challenge.
CurtainUp review of When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout