The Bogus Woman
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
May 3, 2006
The Bogus Woman delves into the desperate world of a woman who attempts to flee her unnamed country for political asylum. Part of the Brits off Broadway festival, it is a one-woman show, in which actress Sarah Niles embodies this hapless woman entering Britain as a detainee, and the menagerie of friends and foes she comes into contact with.
In the spirit of candor, I feel it’s only fair to make an admission: I am one-woman (or -man) show-phobic. And something about this well-conceived show reminds me why. It is tremendously difficult to master this kind of performance, or to direct it, for that matter. While Niles is an extremely talented performer, whose characters spring to life under her touch, The Bogus Woman still ends up feeling disappointingly one-note. It lacks nuance or subtlety. It lacks humor. Now, again, I feel obligated to return to the point of this problematic form. How can one make a one-woman show about human rights violations subtle or funny? Ethically, does the audience deserve to be treated lightly when the all-too-real characters of the show are not? Ultimately, the ethics of brutalizing an audience are somewhat irrelevant: whether or not the audience deserves to be treated tenderly, they will not pay attention if they are not. The piece will lose the audience’s focus, thereby losing its own effectiveness.
The Bogus Woman falls prey to this trap of the solo show, demanding too much from its audience. It gives the audience all the worst, though very plausible, moments of a woman’s life, with almost none of the best. The show is relentless and, for the audience as well as the character, there is little to no relief. While again, ethically, this may be fair, artistically, it is not very useful. The brutality renders itself ineffective when it becomes predictable.
When the “bogus” woman arrives in her new country, she is subjected to being treated as an unwanted animal, penned up and locked away. She files for appeals with her well-intentioned but ineffective court-appointed lawyer, and she endures utter humiliations on the stand. The prosecutor accuses her of making up the murders of her husband, brother, and newborn baby, and says that her contention that she became pregnant from the rape that ended the attack is highly spurious and unlikely. In her country, the woman had been a writer and it was an article she wrote that landed her in the trouble she came to. She knows if she returns, she will be killed, but the prosecutor suggests, with the constantly changing government there, she may even “be welcomed back as a hero.” Even the person who sponsors her boarding eventually kicks her out so she can turn the room over to a more politically attractive refugee from Kosovo.
As an audience member, I began to expect only bad things to happen to this unnamed character, and, each time they did, I was less and less moved. In Hamlet, Shakespeare says, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” But wit is not the only thing best served by brevity. Sometimes the very essence of communication lies within the domain of the brief and concise. The Bogus Woman, which apparently began as a 15-minute piece, errs always on the side of giving too much information, when a briefer version would very likely, instead of saying more, leave the audience wanting more.
The material here is certainly worthy, and one gets the sense that the artists involved with this production have a very strong sense of purpose. The idea that attention should be paid to detainees, and their criminal dehumanization, couldn’t possibly be more relevant. Director Kully Thiari has done a good job of gathering a rather competent team here. The performance of Niles is staggeringly good, and often heart-wrenching. The lighting of the sparse space by Ciaran Bagnall manages to create very evocative environments, with almost a purely white palette. The set by Kate Unwin benefits from its bareness, and creatively makes use of its one prop, a thick wooden bench. The costume is not quite as strong, as the dress works extremely well for the protagonist, but is rather useless when Niles plays other characters, especially male ones.
But the script itself lets the piece down, drawing away from some of its own strengths by allowing for the atrocities it focuses on to seem utilitarian. As I mentioned, Niles’s performance is excellent, especially her mastery in giving each of her characters such a differentiated voice and bearing. But in the script, her characters often change so quickly that the effect of her portrayals is diminished and spread thin. Without a foil to play opposite her strong and compelling woman, Niles’s energy dissipates and doesn’t appear to be put to its best use.
I am sure that others might be more moved and impressed by this work than I was. Seeing the performer herself may very well be worth the trip. And, in spite of its flaws, the script speaks with an essential message, and is sometimes exceptionally strong. The show has made the long journey from Britain to New York, so perhaps a trip to 59th street is not too much to ask.