By: Paulanne Simmons
In Albert Camus’ 1942 novel, The Stranger, a French Algerian named Merusault kills an Arab the day after attending his mother’s funeral, where he shows no emotion. Merusault is sentenced to death, in great part because the prosecutor, using the evidence of his Mersault’s behavior at the funeral, paints him as an individual with neither conscience nor sympathy for fellow human beings.
Camus, the prophet of individual freedom, intended the novel to be an illustration of the absurdity of the human condition. Certainly he never thought to make a political statement, which he would have considered one more absurdity.
Nevertheless, playwright Betty Shameih has used Camus’ novel as the inspiration for “The Strangest,” an immersive theatrical experience that brings the audience into a traditional storytelling cafe. In the cafe, Umm (Jacqueline Antaramian) the daughter of the best storyteller in Algeria, offers the audience a tale of murder and mystery.
In 2011, Shamieh traveled to Aleppo where she found the sites where the legendary storytelling cafes once stood. It was there she came to a different understanding of The Stranger: the novel is not about a weird Frenchman but “a colonist killing a native in a deeply racist environment, where desensitization of self and dehumanization of others are necessary ingredients for survival.” Who knew?
Directed by May Adrales and performed by a cast of seven, “The Strangest,” is now onstage at The Fourth Street Theatre, produced by The Semitic Root, an artistic collective or Arabs, Jews and activists of other backgrounds. It is a noble experiment, but Camus’ existentialism sits uneasily with Shamieh and “The Semitic Roots’ activist agenda.”
Early in the play, Umm says she has three sons: Nader (Juri Henly-Cohn), the good Arab; Nounu (Louis Sallan), the harmless Arab; and Nemo (Andrew Guilarte), the bad Arab. Nounu is a shoemaker. Nemo is a thief. Nader is a painter. Umm says it was her husband’s niece, Layali (Roxanna Hope Radja), who brought tragedy down on the household.
Soon Umm informs the audience they will find out which of her sons was murdered at the end of the play. In fact, most of the play is not about the murders but Layali’s attempt to seduce each of the sons and anyone else in town who will make her a wealthy woman. For a play that’s all about mystery, little is left to the imagination.
Unable to get what she wants from anyone else, Layali choses for her final boyfriend a Gun (Brendan Titley) whose only words are “bang.” He seems to represent the evil French colonizers “who arrived here by the power of the gun, stay by the power of the gun, and speak to us only in the language of the gun.”
More than which son will get murdered, many in the audience may wonder why the playwright spent so much time on Layali and her sexual adventures if she was really trying to make a comment on French colonialism. In the end the real mystery is what is this all about?
The Strangest **
The Fourth Street Theater
83 East 4th Street, NYC
Through April 1, 2017
Running time is 1 hour 30 minutes without intermission
Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 5. Tickets are $25 – $45 and available at brownpapertickets.com.) Photo: Hunter Canning