by Collin McConnell · March 5, 2015
Teri Madonna is performing a virtuosic endurance test as Isabelle Eberhardt at The Flea in Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney's The Nomad. And with as much energy and excitement as can come with the eagerness of a soul such as Eberhardt's, filled with wonder and curiosity, the music and ensemble stay in step with Madonna's performance (and Eberhardt's tale).
Swados and Courtney have created a fast-paced, rough-and-tumble musical that flies through Eberhardt's life much the way she did: impulsively and emotionally. Born in Switzerland, Eberhardt convinced her mother to move to the Sahara, where she became a Muslim, and lived out her life as a journalist, associate to the French colonists, and advocate for the citizens, ultimately dying in a flash flood.
The Nomad takes a playful attitude toward the telling of Isabelle's tale — with rough, blunt language that is all too self aware (the play begins with Isabelle belting out "I am dead"), a massive multi-puppeteer horse puppet, and wrapped up in rich Middle Eastern sounds that allows this musical to scoff at "normalcy" as much as Isabelle herself did; The Nomad revels in her wildness. The music, to be sure, is the highlight of the evening — I don't normally go out of my way to catch musicals, and while I love them as much as the next kid that grew up doing community theater in the suburbs, it is incredibly refreshing to find something that so openly explores the medium with what seems so (unfortunately) unfamiliar. The moment of Lydia Fine's gorgeous horse (puppet) coming together (and subsequent dance with Isabelle) through the nimble work the of ensemble under the guidance of choreographer Ani Taj is also a moment worth finding one's way into the theater (not to mention Fine's unassuming set and props that flesh out the world with a rich simplicity).
But it truly is the triumphant force of Madonna as Isabelle that allows the evening to soar. The gruff honesty of her voice (and the joy in hearing it tire, and drive on anyway) carries a weight that Isabelle's ever-enduring smile and wonder somehow illuminate rather than undercut: she is strong, and she is joyful, and she loves existing.
For all the strengths of the play and this production, I did find myself wanting for more in the visual storytelling: while filled with moments such as Isabelle's meeting her horse, the somehow overwhelming scope of the flash flood, and the gentle (and sultry) meeting of her love, much of the play felt more presentational than Isabelle's life perhaps demands (and that the text of the play suggests). That singular aspect, however, should keep no one from the culturally rich music and wondrous and little-told story of Isabelle Eberhardt.