By Henry Naylor; Directed by Michael Cabot (Angel) & Emma Butler (Echoes)
Produced by Redbeard Theatre, In Association with Gilded Balloon Productions
Part of Brits Off Broadway 2017
Off Broadway, Plays
Runs through 5.7.17
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Ran Xia on 4.17.17
Avital Lvova in Angel; Rachel Smyth & Serena Manteghi in Echoes. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: In these riveting plays inspired by both historical and current events, women fight back, and their strength transcends the boundaries of time and faith.
It’s Victorian England. Tillie (Rachel Smyth) is 17 and needs a ticket out of Ipswich. She makes a choice, an honorable one: ship out to India, and produce children for the Empire. It’s her Christian duty. She agrees to marry the lieutenant, before the voyage brings the crew to Kabul.
175 years later, it’s same ol' story in same ol' Ipswich. Samira (Serena Manteghi) is 17 and conspires with her best friend Beegum to become brides of the Caliphate. She finds a husband in Raqqa, and leaves behind a familiar life of getting good grades at school, and reading about “Kim Kardashian’s big bottom” in magazines.
They are like any other girls, ones you’d get along with quite easily: Tillie would probably tell you about her interest in the life cycle of flies, and Samira about her boring job at WHSmith, and how the electoral victory of Nigel Farage “groomed her for jihad.” They’re smart girls, opinionated, obstinately so at times, and easily influenced, but mostly because men run the marketing campaigns: of the British Raj then, the Caliphate now. Tillie and Samira soon witness the cruelty of men in their respective times, and when they dare to raise their voices, are met with violence: a “soldier’s punch” from Tillie’s husband, and rape from Samira’s.
The past and the present converge through the two protagonists’ frightfully similar experiences of being a woman in a patriarchal world. “The men seem to be able twist the rules when it suits them. And yet for us, the Law is rigid.” Disillusioned by the reality, her body violated and her spirit beaten down, Samira concludes, “They hold the guns.”
Smyth and Manteghi, both captivating performers, enrapture the audience with their narratives, which echo each other and shift the pendulum of time back and forth as we follow the fates of Tillie and Samira, watching them grow stronger in misfortune and then fight back. The women are not against their religion, but against the men using religion to justify cruelty. Naylor makes this clear when Samira says “The Word is perfect. But the ears of men are not.”
Smyth is impressive as the spunky and ferociously brave young woman who, isolated in a foreign land, stands up against the oppressors and fights for justice. And Manteghi’s nuanced portrayal of Samira’s emotional states is exceptional: from the initial nervous optimism and excitement that matches a young Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, to the vulnerability of an oppressed housewife reminiscent of Laila from One Thousand Splendid Suns, and eventually the hardened determination when she realizes what she must do to claim the ultimate victory.
Rehana (Avital Lvova) is a farmer’s daughter living in Kobanî, Syria. Her father is counting on her to take over the farm one day, but Rehana wants to become a lawyer “like William Shatner in Boston Legal.” Recognizing the name only from Star Trek, her father is appalled by her wish to become the spaceman who says “Beam me up, Scotty.” She reluctantly picks up a rifle and trains with her father, shooting cans of Orangina and learning the liberation song (but not before her father agrees to learn “All the Single Ladies” first). Her act of rebellion as a teenager is “by being a swat.” She runs back to school.
Life seems fine and dandy for a while as Rehana gets ready for law school, but war always happens at inconvenient moments. While the family heads to Europe after the fall of Mosul, the father stays to fight— for the family trees, for duty. Rehana decides to go find him, and soon finds herself among the YPJ fighters.
The YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) is an all-female force of Kurdish resistance that has been playing a critical role in the Syrian civil war. A democratic and feminist movement, the YPJ consists of women from all walks of life who volunteer as essentially martyrs. They particularly exert fear in ISIS because religious militants “have been told that if they are killed by a woman, they cannot enter Paradise. No 72 Virgins for them.” And thus Rehana, a pacifist law student, becomes an executioner. As Rehana the farm girl dies, she is replaced by Rehana the killer, with a trigger-like reflex and a ledger red with the blood of ISIS. Her victories are confounded by her conscience: “with every kill, a small death of my own.”
The riveting story is inspired by a legend—Rehana the “Angel of Kobanî” has been something of an Internet celebrity. Some reports say that she killed 100 ISIS militants before getting captured and beheaded, others claim that she’s merely a made-up figure, and the photo floating around is just of some Kurdish girl in a uniform. But whether truth or fiction, the Angel of Kobanî has become a symbol of courage and resistance during these years of turbulence for the freedom fighters in Kobanî.
Lvova is a force of nature as the legendary Rehana, with the strength and agility of a well-trained soldier, the tenderness of a daughter who fights to be reunited with her father, and the kind of sadness you find in the eyes of someone who’s lost their home.
Both Angel and Echoes are rich, captivating stories about themes in urgent need of attention. Naylor makes it easy to fall in love with Rehana, which makes her expected end a punch in the gut. This is true with Tillie and Samira in Echoes as well. The simplicity of the production is perfect, as the complex characters come to life on stage without distraction. In both plays, the heroines’ voices are distinct, relatable, and unmistakably feminine. Even more importantly, they are funny, because even in the darkest hour, humor is still the sharpest weapon. These are undefeated women, and their courage will surely be a source of inspiration for people at the frontiers of resistance everywhere.
(Angel & Echoes plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through May 7, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 15 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:15; Saturdays at 2:15 and 7:15; and Sundays at 3:15. Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members) and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 212-279-4200.)
Angel & Echoes is by Henry Naylor. Directed by Michael Cabot (Angel) & Emma Butler (Echoes). Stage Manager is Veronica Aglow.
The cast is Avital Lvova (Angel); Rachel Smyth and Serena Manteghi (Echoes).