Alex & Eliza – Traverse Theatre

Featuring live music and a cast of four actors that take on a lot of different roles, Alex & Eliza is a delight from start to finish. The piece tells the story of playwright-actor Umar Butt’s grandmother Eliza, who lived in British India at the time when India and Pakistan became separate countries.

The first thing that struck me was the powerful atmosphere created by the live music on stage before the play begins. It was nostalgic and melancholy, while carrying a certain note of hope – a mixture that set up high expectations for the rest of the piece. It does not disappoint.

Each actor joins in the singing and music-making at certain points in the story. Every song has its own flavor, yet they all blend together perfectly to create intense vibes that are completely unique to the story. The musicians occasionally speak to the actors involved in a given scene, and vice versa. The result is a stunning soundtrack that blends organically with the rest of the performance.

This piece also benefits from its incredibly skilled actors. All four of them take on multiple roles, often switching between these quickly and fluidly. It is easy to forget that there is not a larger cast involved in the performance. It is equally easy to forget that Seweryna Dudzinska is not actually Eliza; her portrayal of this complex role is so completely convincing that I had to remind myself she was not actually there when these events transpired.

The cast has excellent chemistry with each other. Regardless of the roles they adopt, all four of them play off each other very well. I enjoyed seeing their interactions and dynamics shift depending on whom they were playing in that moment.

Another aspect I thoroughly enjoyed was the use of physical theatre. Many scenes were made all the more poignant because of the cleverly-employed theatrical style, such as the moment when Eliza’s mother dies during childbirth. The reverse side of this was the use of fourth-wall breaks – from the actors arguing with Butt, to Butt addressing the audience directly, this piece makes full use of the fact that it is being performed live. I have rarely, if ever, seen a performance so skillfully delve into such varied theatrical styles.

The audience clearly loved this piece as much as I did. During the scene in the jazz club, we barely needed any encouragement to clap along. At the very end, several people left the theatre having cried, or with their eyes still wet, Butt and myself included. The fact that it had such a profound impact on so many people speaks volumes to the brilliance of this piece.

I have truly never seen anything quite like Alex & Eliza. It is touching, funny, heartbreaking, bittersweet, and an altogether memorable experience I can only highly recommend. I will be eagerly anticipating any future works by Umar Butt.

PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre

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Isa Reneman

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