It’s structured as intertwined monologues between two 17-year-olds, a Victorian and a contemporary Muslim. Both actresses very skillfully perform as those central characters as well as their husbands and an assortment of people they encounter. These multiple characterizations are all quite rich and precise.
Ms. Braganca is the Muslim Samira who lives in present day Ipswich, England. She works in WHSmith, a British bookstore chain, and becomes radicalized by a girlfriend and goes to war-torn Syria and marries an authoritarian military man. Ms. Houlbrooke is Tillie, who is also from Ipswich, in the 19thcCentury and travels to British imperial Afghanistan to marry a roguish army lieutenant. Both unions are complicated and sadly dramatize the timeless situation of the powerlessness of women in oppressive societies.
Costume designer Adrian Gwillym’s simple but impressive garments pointedly personify the characters. Samira wears a dull all black ensemble including a headscarf. Tillie is in a lustrous white gown.
Braganca encased in the oppressive religious wear strongly conveys Samira’s girlishness struggling and conflicting with her faith. With banana curls and haughtiness, Houlbrooke vividly offers a portrait of the archetypical Englishwoman battling societal conventions. Both of them beautifully capture youthful idealism curdling into disillusionment.
Playwright Henry Naylor achieved prominence in Great Britain as a television writer most notably for the satirical program Spitting Image. This work is not groundbreaking but it does very effectively depict the two women and their plights with shrewdly imparted historical and cultural details that conjure up exotic imagery reminiscent of David Lean’s epic films. Humor and tragedy are seamlessly combined. There are topical references to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, drone strikes and the British tabloids as well as 19th century specifics.
Mr. Naylor also designed the expressively basic scenery. The stage is all black. There is a black stool and a black bench both with “Echoes” written in white on them, as is the backdrop. Lighting designer Ross Bibby evocatively presents the shifting time periods and moods strikingly with his accomplished work.
The direction by Emma Butler and Naylor crisply presents the action and emotions with a fine variety of placement of the actors making the production aesthetically vibrant.
This U.S. premiere of Echoes is presented as part of 59E59 Theaters’ annual event, 2016 Brits Off Broadway Festival. It’s a grand and moving small-scale theatrical showcase for its duo of marvelous performers.
Echoes (through May 4, 2016)
2016 Brits Off Broadway Festival
Redbeard Theatre Ltd and Gilded Balloon Productions
59E59 Theaters. 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour with no intermission