Caravan Productions

at the Center Theater Studio

When we first meet Isabelle Eberhardt, she’s crouched on the ground belching and singing snatches of bawdy quasi-Arabic drinking songs. Her first words are “I need a fuck!” Recent theater seasons have brought us many strong women, some almost forgotten by history–Charlotte Cushman, Rosa Luxemburg. But New Anatomies, the latest play from the always-surprising Timberlake Wertenbaker, leaves unanswered whether Eberhardt was a prototypical feminist, a slothful dropout, or simply a tomboy who never grew up.

Eberhardt actively pursued a life of poverty, vagrancy, and debauchery in the North African desert and ended up suffering from one or more of that region’s many diseases. In the opening scene the sick woman annoys the journalist attempting to interview her, but the journalist perseveres, sensing that the end is near for this extraordinary woman. During Eberhardt’s fever-fueled delirium, we learn her incredible story. She’s the illegitimate child of a flighty Swiss mother who eloped with her children’s tutor in 1877; her eccentric Russian father gave his child a classical education, teaching her several languages, but dressed her as a boy throughout her childhood and encouraged her to isolate herself from her society. On a visit to Algeria with her mother, Eberhardt fell in love with the place, so unlike stuffy Europe. A year later, in 1897, to the horror of her family she returned to that politically volatile region dressed as a young man, Si Mahmoud, to roam with the nomadic tribes, study in Sufi monasteries, and devote her nights to drinking, sodomy, and kif smoking. Over the next seven years she faithfully chronicled her extensive travels, her secret missions for the French government, and her adulation by the salon society of fin de siecle Paris, until she died in a flash flood (the irony of drowning in a desert is noted by one of the characters in New Anatomies) at the age of 28.

Historians, who essentially classify events, have always found it difficult to deal with causeless rebels, and the uncompromising individuality of Eberhardt’s journeys makes it easy to dismiss her as a fabulous freak. “To be alone is to be free, and freedom is the only happiness accessible to my nature,” she declares, and Wertenbaker makes no attempt to curtail that freedom by linking Eberhardt to any movement or sect. Nor does the playwright gloss over the less attractive aspects of Eberhardt’s character–one does not ride with Berber chieftains without losing some of one’s gentility.

In this Caravan production, directed by Jessica Thebus, six talented actresses play 20 characters, male and female. Though the performances were a trifle rushed on opening night, fine work is to be had from Lisa Sauber as the Parisian journalist Severine, Martha Cotton as the English male impersonator Verda Miles (whose renditions of music-hall ditties sentimentalizing contemporary events provide a significant contrast to Eberhardt’s harshly realistic account), and Robin Chaplik as the compassionate Colonel Lyautey. But what we remember long after the play is CeCe Klinger’s inspired portrayal of Eberhardt herself: she conveys the lure of the desert so palpably that we can all but feel the heat and sand ourselves.

Raising the curtain for New Anatomies is A Day of Fever, a monologue adapted from Eberhardt’s writings by Thebus, who also performs the piece. Unfortunately, she has not immersed herself deeply enough in her character–too often her Eberhardt comes off as a plucky, self-conscious, anxious-to-please, modern, healthy American academic reciting for the teacher. Thebus also makes some odd choices in her generally unfocused line interpretations, giving weight to mere description (“He had the face of an ascetic”) and throwing away such observations as “Our love is nothing but passionate suffering.” In any event Thebus’s well-researched work duplicates rather than expands upon the material delineated much more vividly in Wertenbaker’s play.