Winter still has us in her icy grip, but at the innovative Flea Theater on White Street downtown, the hot winds of the Sahara blow across your face and you can be transported for 70 minutes to a different time and place in a new work called “The Nomad.” It is composed and directed by Elizabeth Swados, with a book and lyrics by Swados and Erin Courtney. Swados is a composer and lyricist best known for taking epic stories and far flung cultures and translating them into musical excursions. She dives in headlong.
Swados began by composing a trio of Greek plays that rocked LaMama Theater in the early ’70s. Directed and co-conceived by Andre Serban, these seminal works went on to tour the world and be revived serially at La Mama and elsewhere, always to great acclaim. Swados is a novelist, a poet and often she find tortured souls to channel and to whom to give second life.
She has done this again with the life of Isabelle Eberhardt, whose brief life, 1877-1904 has received great attention of late. In 2012 composer Missy Mazzola mounted a full-blown opera called “Uproar” about Isabelle’s perambulations in the Algerian desert. It received a glorious production at the Kitchen.
Eberhardt convinced her mother to voyage to Algiers so she could explore and convert to Islam, a religion that fascinated her. Isabelle dressed as a man and took this purloined freedom into battles, sexual escapes, mosques and to her favorite place the dreamy desert. Her dual nature, man and woman, was also evinced in her joint ability to consort with the French Colonists and the native Berbers. She was a writer by trade and kept extensive journals, which spun stories and winsome poetry. She died tragically at 27 when a flash flood consumed her nomadic home while she was deep asleep.
“The Nomad” attempts to tell in quick vignettes, each with an accompanying song — 22 of them in total — the life and times of Isabelle Eberhardt. The set, props, costumes and puppets create simple scenes utilizing woven muslin panels, turbans, indigo fabrics, hookahs and lanterns carried by the large and talented ensemble cast.
Isabelle has two portrayers, the very young and talented Sydney Blaxill, just out of NYU’s Tisch program and her more grown self, played by Terri Madonna. On occasion the two women come together to sing the longing and passions of an equally bifurcated character.
Behind the well-lighted scrim (Daisy Long designer) there is a marvelous five-piece ensemble, a host of musicians playing the sounds of the Call to Prayer, the echoes of the souk and the songs of Isabelle’s soul. Although the music at times hits a dissonant chord for me, the overall effect does transport to a place and culture I so adore.
Especially in modern times when the conflicts within the Middle East seem to spill out constantly, it is refreshing to see a portrayal of the potential roots of resentment stemming from colonial captors and cultures not fully respected. “The Nomad” takes pains to show the history of the time as well as of Isabelle, a character so driven to live the life she yearned for that she established a way to live multiple lives in one short span.
The Flea Theater continues to turn out work that seems large scale in a small surrounding due largely, I believe, to its program of nurturing young theater artists through The Bats. This gives The Flea not only a way to help educate the next generation of great artists, but also to provide staging that fills a room, from the staircases to a rolling dancing number called the Oblivion Seekers who populate an opium den while singing in amazing harmonies.
The Nomad may not be a perfect evening, but it is a wonderful interlude nestled in a different culture and the heat of the desert. And a life of wanderlust and fearlessness as evinced by Isabelle Eberhardt is certainly something to laud in times of too much fear.
“The Nomad” runs through April 6 at The Flea, 41 White Street in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-226-0051 or visit www.theflea.org