Written by Henry Naylor
Directed by Henry Naylor & Emma Buttler
ECHOES is what might be called a “plovel”, a hybrid of theater and prose that, judging by its ubiquity at the last several Brits off-Broadway festivals, is currently popular among UK playwrights. On a practical level, the approach makes sense: a small cast, acting on a bare stage, can use description to create an unlimited universe. But plovels also depend heavily on narration, which rarely packs the punch of traditional drama’s mainstays, action and dialogue. Nevertheless, playwright Henry Naylor builds the first half of this parallel narrative effectively. The introductory scenes are charmingly funny despite the show’s dark undercurrents, and its bright, rebellious heroines are easy to empathize with. As it rushes towards its tragic conclusion, though, the theatrical energy of the story bogs down in a surfeit of excess detail and moral homily.
Though they are separated by over a century of history, Victorian-era Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke) and present-day Samira (Filipa Bragança) have a lot in common. Both hail from the riverside town of Ipswich, England. Both find the burg to be an absolute bore, and both – for very different reasons – choose marriage as a way out. Tillie, though plucky and extremely intelligent, has little chance of pursuing a career. All the marriageable men, it appears, have gone to India to establish British rule there. Like many single ladies of the time, Tillie books passage on what is known euphemistically as the “Fishing Fleet’’ in an effort to find a suitable mate and embark on a life of opulence in the exotic East. Sadly, the rosy future she imagines is not to be. The couple is transferred to Afghanistan, where British opium interests have destroyed the agrarian economy and civil unrest is simmering. The man she chooses as a husband is not merely an arrogant imperialist. He drinks prodigiously, cheats on Tillie, and beats her when she objects to his mistreatment of the local population. During one of his drunken rampages, he and his cohorts rape two local women. The Afghans demand justice and a bloody uprising ensues. Caught in a crisis that is not of her making, Tillie must choose a side.
Intercut with Tillie’s story, Samira’s 21st Century journey is less about innocence than naiveté. Bored by a low wage job and a culture that deems Kim Kardashian’s buttocks more newsworthy than the Syrian refugee crisis, Samira is susceptible to the propagandizing of her militant best friend. After looking at photos of armed Muslim women with fighting for their homeland, Samira decides to take action. To join the movement, she’ll have to marry a Mujahideen fighter: hardly a move that epitomizes independence, but one that Samira believes will ultimately empower her. She and her friend travel to Syria, where Samira becomes one of the wives of a rebel soldier. Her idealism is quickly supplanted by a harsh reality in which women are used for housework and sex, and the men, gleeful at the loss of innocent life, treat mass murder like a videogame. When Samira dares to question whether Allah would approve of all this wanton slaughter, her husband, like Tillie’s, becomes abusive. Escape won’t be easy in this war-torn country, but Samira soon realizes she has no other option.
Both Houlbrooke and Bragança turn in solid, vibrant performances, often jumping in and out of character with lightning-quick precision as they morph into the various inhabitants of their respective worlds. Co-directors Naylor and Emma Buttler give the 60- minute show a brisk pace and keep the intertwining stories from becoming confusing. Ultimately, though, the show stops being about the characters and becomes a sermon on the Worldwide Perpetual Martyrdom of Women. Naylor should trust his more humanistic instincts, and allow the audience more room interpret what the story means.
ECHOES continues through May 4, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com.