The name Isabelle Eberhardt doesn't ring very many bells today; she wasn't someone who discovered a cure for something or founded an organization. She was a real person, an explorer and wandering writer who died in a flash flood in 1904 at the age of 27. Yet Eberhardt was bold; how many people would pack up their lives in Switzerland to move to Algeria? How many women would disguise themselves as men so they could venture forth in a world where the fairer sex was disenfranchised? Eberhardt's adventures were certainly extraordinary — and if not extraordinary, very unusual — however, in Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney's kaleidoscopic new musical The Nomad, at the Flea Theater, they seem anything but.
Swiss-born to an Armenian anarchist father and a Russian aristocratic mother, Eberhardt long had a fascination with the Arab world, even going as far as converting to Islam after traveling to Algeria. She'd regularly dress as a man, calling herself Si Mahmoud Essadi, so she wouldn't have to adhere to the strictures set upon women. She was attacked with a saber and nearly lost an arm in a 1901 assassination attempt. She was killed in a deluge when the clay house she lived in with her husband, an Algerian soldier named Slimane, literally collapsed on top of them.
Onstage, such calamities seem like no sweat. Throughout the 60-minute piece, Eberhardt is plucky and wide-eyed, smiling broadly at that which befalls her even when the going gets tough. The writers don't really provide much in the way of conflict, and as a result, we never really find out what makes the enigmatic protagonist tick. Teri Madonna, in the lead role of Isabelle, has an appealing presence in the only role that's truly fleshed out. Twelve other actors appear in the show in both named and unnamed roles, but they're little more than ensemble members.
Swados, who codirects with Molly Marinik, delivers a Middle-Eastern-influenced, musical-theater-rock score that proves intriguing, though the bluntly self-aware lyrics that she and Courtney have penned are arguably less so (Isabelle sings at the beginning, "I am dead, this is the state of things"). In the hands of this cast, the music itself, with arrangements by Kris Kukul for a band of five, reaches levels of gloriousness, though, given that the piece is entirely sung through, it's hard to tell where one number stops and another starts.
The production itself is a hallucinatory experience, complete with moody lighting by Daisy Long and an ever-shifting landscape courtesy of scenic designer Lydia Fine. Fine also happens to be the designer of Souf, a full-size puppet horse that takes more than half of the cast to operate. A truly memorable part of this hour-long fever dream of an experience, watching Souf in action on the small Flea stage is the only aspect of The Nomad that we have the proper amount of time to cherish.