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Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Filipa Braganca and Felicity Houlbrooke
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The parallel stories of two teenage girls living 175 years apart take them leaping from the tepid frying pan of their stultifying lives into an all-consuming fire in Echoes, Henry Naylor's gut punch of a play opening today as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters.

Living in the Victorian era is Tillie (Felicity Houlbrooke), all dressed in white as if heading out to tea. Her counterpart is a modern Muslim teen, Samira (Filipa Braganca), wearing a black hijab. Both reside in Ipswich, England, and both long to flee its repressive environment, go out into the world where they might do some good, and perhaps put some adventure into their lives.

For Tillie, the escape route is an offer of free passage to India and marriage to a young British officer. "There are no men in Ipswich," she says, "only a succession of squinting dullards." And so it's off to India, marriage to a lieutenant, and, later on, a transfer to Afghanistan where the men are sent to defend British interests.

For her part, Samira gets caught up in the hard-sell allure of joining the jihadists and doing something positive for the millions of Syrian refugees. "This is my choice. Paradis . . . or Ipswich. The shadow of God's kingdom on earth, or a land of chip papers and dog shit."

Both young women find out quite quickly that they have bitten off way more than they can chew. Tillie is witness to the harsh lives and violence that mark her new surroundings. And the man she married, a stranger really, is heartless and abusive to her and to the people whose lives are being impinged on by the unwelcome British presence. In Syria, Samira finds even more violence in a land where women have no standing other than as servants and sex objects.

The writing and the portrayals are so thoroughly compelling that we are pulled immediately into Tillie and Samira's worlds. How could such intelligent and independent young woman have fallen into these traps? We both fear for them and root for them as they struggle mightily and courageously to undo the ungainly knots in which they have become tied.

Despite its brevity (under an hour), and using only the alternating stories offered up by two very talented performers, Echoes, codirected by the playwright and Emma Buttler, packs a wallop as it serves as a sad reminder that history repeats itself, with only subtle variations, generation after generation.

Through May 4
59E59 Theaters - Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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