The Fourth Street Theater is currently unrecognizable, as the theater company known as Semiotic Root has transformed the space into an intimate storytelling café—the sort found in North Africa. A patchwork of Persian carpets covers every inch of the floor, and hanging lanterns cast a warm glow across the carved wooden tables and plush floor cushions. The scent of strong coffee wafts through the air, and audience members are invited to help themselves to a cup. The setting is for playwright Betty Shamieh’s The Strangest, an absurdist murder mystery inspired by the unnamed Arab killed in Albert Camus’ classic novel, The Stranger, which is an emblem of mid-20th-century French existentialism.
The story behind The Strangest’s creation is an interesting one that sheds light on the play’s content and form. In fact, it deserves to be highlighted at least in the production’s program notes (if not during an introductory curtain speech). Shamieh had been commissioned to write a play on Camus’ Stranger, but upon revisiting the text, Shamieh—a child of Palestinian immigrants—realized that “adapting a cerebral novel wasn’t [her] thing” but “wanted to tell the other side of the story, evoking the wildness of the world that was French Algiers” in the mid-20th century. Moving the focus away from Camus’ existential French narrator, Shamieh casts light on the racist and desensitized world inhabited by the Arab man that he shot.
We know early on in The Strangest that one of the sons of Umm (Jacqueline Antaramian), the storyteller, will be shot by the end of the play. Despite this explicit foreshadowing, The Strangest does not lack surprises. May Adrales’s direction features an assortment of reveals, achieved by curtains on either side of the stage that pull back to show characters in both comedic and dramatic cameos and asides.
The ensemble of actors in this production is strong and thoughtful. The family relationships conveyed between Umm and her sons are compelling to watch. Tender yet fierce, Antaramian’s Umm looks at her brood like a lioness looks to her cubs. Each son crafts his character around a distinct characteristic: Nounu (Louis Sallan) is a sensitive shoemaker, Nemo (Andrew Guilarte) is a hot-headed thief, and Nader (Juri Henly-Cohn) is an observant artist. Each is interested in marrying Layali, their cousin (Roxanna Hope Radja) but she has other plans for herself. The fate of Umm’s three sons converges near the end of the play in a thoughtful plot twist.
Where The Strangest needs polish is its veritable hodgepodge of genres. Though the show’s description claims to be “immersive,” that is true only in the sense that the theater is decorated (beautifully, thanks to Daniel Zimmerman’s set design) to look like an Algerian coffee shop. The only Frenchman in the play (Gun, played by Brendan Titley) is grotesquely depicted as a gigantic child with a large, cartoonish gun for a hat (a costume challenge executed effectively by Becky Bodurtha). This convention works sufficiently well to evoke a sense of absurd pessimism, but sits awkwardly with the production’s more traditional dramatic elements, such as the very emotional and cinematic musical score (designed by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes) and the impassioned monologues delivered by Antaramian and Alok Tewari, who plays her husband, Abu.
Women are depicted as currency in world of The Strangest, but at least they are given a voice. Umm’s niece Layali’s only hope for social advancement is through marriage, and this vulnerability exposes her to horrible abuses at the hands of the French colonizer. Umm herself is unwelcome in the male-dominated space of the storytelling café. Shamieh critiques Camus’ classic existentialist ideology by introducing this feminist perspective, as well as the critical yet absurdist take on colonialism that haunts us every time the Gun character appears on stage. In a sense, she gives voices to the quite literally voiceless and nameless character of Camus’ limited world. For this reason, The Strangest is an adaptation worth seeing and, then, pondering over a cup of strong coffee.
Semiotic Root's production of The Strangest runs through April 1 at The Fourth Street Theatre on 83 East Fourth St. (between the Bowery and Second Ave). Performances are at 7:30 p.m., except for a 5 p.m. show on Sunday, March 25, and a 2:30 p.m. show on Saturday, April 11. Tickets range from $25–$45 and can be purchased here.