The performance of “The Strangest” at the HERE theater on 6th avenue was a unique experience to me. The setting was less formal, more of a workshop type of atmosphere, as actors were not totally off script and still in the process of working out blocking. The play is only a year in the making. I’m familiar with the rehearsal and production of an established play, but I had never given much thought to how new plays begin and evolve. It’s interesting to know they are allowed to shift and morph over a period of time, much like a major visual art piece or a poem. Playwriting is also different from other forms of composition. The words on the page take a giant extra step to become what happens on the stage. Not only will they need time to grow and change themselves, but the accompanying blocking, acting, staging, costuming, etc., need to be honed, as well.
An overview: The play is narrated by the mother of the Arab man shot by a Frenchman (a retelling of The Stranger by Albert Camus). The struggles of the natives of Algiers with French colonization are explored extensively, following one Arab family: the mother, her husband, their sons, and their niece. Some parts are narrated by the mother, under the guise of a storytelling competition at a coffee house. At the beginning of the play she introduces her three sons: the good Arab, the harmless Arab, and the bad Arab. The audience learns that one will be shot by a Frenchman at the end of the play. The story revolves around the niece, who was orphaned at a young age along with her brother, by her father’s killing at the hands of French soldiers. She’s a restless, overtly sexual girl. Her longing for the grandeur of the life she might have had if not for the French occupation manifests itself in an obsession with money, and marrying into it. For this reason, she repeatedly snubs the marriage proposals of each of the three sons (as her cousins, they should have “first dibs” on her, culturally). She introduces them to her French “fiancée,” who eventually ends up raping her. The sons set out to avenge this wrong, and one ends up getting shot. What the audience does not learn until the end of the play is that, all along, there had only been one son, who had been split into three in the mothers’ mind.
The story isn’t a complete departure from Camus’ The Stranger. Much of it is in the spirit of the book, especially in regards to Meursault’s character. The Frenchmen (particularly Meursault and his neighbor, the man who is involved with the Arab woman in the original book) are meshed into one man, mirroring the homogenized treatment of the Arabs in The Stranger. In place of a name, he’s called simply “Gun,” stripping him of an identity in the same manner as the Arab man in the book. Gun’s costume includes sunglasses, which may or may not deliberately relate to his actions in the book. Meursault explains his reasoning for shooting the Arab vaguely, claiming the sun and sweat in his eyes, combined with the glint off light off a knight blade, made him feel threatened. Gun can’t possibly use the same excuse, thanks to his aviators. Then again, the sunglasses could be a purely aesthetic choice—the guy looked straight out of Super Troopers, with a goofy grin on his face. He got laughs every time he set foot on stage. Every time he opens his mouth to speak he says only “bang bang bang bang bang,” which, coincidentally, is the only thing Meursault’s character really “says” to the Arab in the book. His speech refers to the French’s use of “the language of the gun,” taking the Arabs in Algiers by force. The play focuses much more on history than the book. It more clearly explains the French occupation, the “French quarter,” and relations between the French and the Arabs in Algiers.
The play, like the book, deals with identity. The split of the one son into three characters was particularly interesting. As the play was progressing, I was somewhat bothered by the static personalities of the brothers. I thought no can always be that good, and no one can always be that bad. I enjoyed the twist, because I think it highlighted the fact that all people are multidimensional. It also made me think more deeply about the shooting. It’s easy to think, in many stories, that the “good guy” triumphs over the “bad guy” …but it’s rarely that cut and dry.
I also think some threads of the play spoke to existentialism, though perhaps not in the Heideggerian sense. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is more useful to consider in this case. To put it in basic terms, the master-slave dialectic is similar to Heidegger’s break down situation in the sense that the slave is brought down to identity ground zero by the co-opting of his or her condition by the master. The slave says “you can take my body, you can take my work, but you will not find me there. You can force me to say words or feign respect, but you will not truly find what you’re looking for.” By means of this process, the slave discovers that his or her identity is not contained within a role or a physical world—that he or she has only to acknowledge a relationship to those roles. The play illustrated the master-slave dialectic through the father, who relives a speech he gave to his fellow men and to the Frenchmen. He says things along the lines of “you can force me to say Algiers belongs to France, but they are just words. You can take our streets but you will never have them…there are invisible things that are only ours” (I’m butchering that wording, so forgive me). Classic master-slave dialectic.
Overall, it’s a complicated play, especially when evaluated as it relates to The Stranger. That’s not to say I think it’s completely flawless. I have a few sticking points. For instance, there’s an interesting discussion of motherhood lurking in there that I thought could be more fleshed out. I loved a line from the beginning: “because, when a child dies, it’s always somehow the mother’s fault. If you were a mother, you would understand. It’s always the mothers’ fault.” I also thought women’s rights were addressed toward the end of the play as a sort of afterthought. I would have liked that theme to be more relevant earlier in the play—and, perhaps, to be less obvious and cliché about it. My finale gripe: I thought there was some strangely placed humor. I think there’s room for humor in everything, but there were some lines that just seemed inappropriate for the mood of the moment.
So, that’s all, folks. “The Strangest” was a compelling kick-off to my theater adventures in NYC. It allowed me to think critically and analytically. I was so immersed in my assessment of the play that there wasn’t much room for anything else in my brain. I can’t tell you what a welcomed relief that was.