I am sitting in an aisle seat in the tiny Cell Theater in Albuquerque. The opening of the play is delayed. I am growing restless as minute after minute I stare at the dark stage without a curtain, listen to the increasingly heavy silence and wait with growing impatience for the action to begin. Finally a door opens behind me and a small woman of a certain age slouches through it. She is slovenly dressed and walks with a shuffle. She is wearing several layers of coats and pushes a cart containing a bedroll and odds and ends of possessions.
She comes directly up to me. She stands inches from me. She pleads with me, insistently, aggressively. She blathers in incomprehensible, rapid-fire but well accented French. Then she switches to English: “I am not a beggar. I am not a beggar. I am not a beggar,” she repeats over and over. That, of course, is precisely how she appears.
Thus begins “Not My Revolution,” a powerful one-woman play now having its American premiere in downtown Albuquerque. As if snatched from this morning’s headlines, the drama takes place during the continuing civil war in Syria. It is an ambitious, brilliant tour de force written and acted by Elizabeth Huffman, who is herself of Syrian descent.
The revolution of the title has two contexts: the 2011 popular revolt against the Syrian dictatorship, which devolved into the catalyst for the nations’s continuing civil war; and the 1789 revolution that ended the French monarchy and led four years later to the execution of the queen, Marie Antoinette. “Not My Revolution” depicts parallels between the two revolutions, as well as between the fate of Marie Antoinette and the Syrian woman who is persecuted by President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters, which include her own father-in-law.
The production has been designed by Albuquerque’s Fusion theater company and is stunningly directed by Fusion stalwart Laurie Thomas.
The hour-and-a-half monologue for the most part focuses on the travails of this Syrian woman. She married into a wealthy and influential family supporting the Assad regime, owned an art gallery, and passed her life happily in a merry round of parties and receptions.
Due to a series of coincidences, she and her her husband are accidentally caught up in an anti-regime demonstration, her husband is killed, and she is arrested as a suspected supporter of the protesters. Her father-in-law takes her children away from her and forces her into exile. She travels to Lebanon and Turkey, seeking eventually to get to Paris, but is robbed of all her documents and money. She ends up in the street, penniless, alone and utterly forlorn.
The last scenes shift to France in 1783 where Marie Antoinette is in a prison cell awaiting execution. Some of the parallels between the two women are self-evident. They are both tragic victims of revolutionary eras. They are both wealthy, self-involved and insulated members of the elite who are naive about their society and ignorant of the great political issues churning around them.
The play, however, fails to show a core relationship between the two women, nor is it clear how referencing the French Revolution strengthens the depiction of the Syrian uprising. My own feeling is the play would be more focused and more powerful if it dealt only with the plight of the Syrian woman, whose tragedy is so profound that it needs no historical metaphor to highlight it.
Quibbles about the construction of the play aside, Huffman does a magnificent job as author and solo actor in this moving human document. The drama has had only one previous staging, in Germany, but is scheduled for a tour of Egypt, London, Chicago and Los Angeles in coming months. There will be plenty of opportunity to fine tune it.
Huffman, who is based in Portland, Ore., but has acted and directed several times in Albuquerque, has had an extraordinary career. She acted in her first play at the age of 6, went on to join the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus as a dancer and elephant rider, and has participated in scores of plays as singer, dancer, actor, author, director and producer.
The playbill for “After the Revolution” notes, “She dedicates this work to all the victims of brutal civil war, especially in Syria.”
“Not My Revolution” continues through May 28 at the Cell Theater, 708 First St. NW in Downtown Albuquerque. May 25, 27 and 28 performances will be pay what you will. For tickets and information go to fusionnm.org or call 505-766-9412.