Blondie of Arabia
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
September 22, 2010
I think the first thing that you might say to writer/performer Monica Hunken after she tells you that she rode her bike across three countries in the Middle East, where a woman on a bicycle can be considered indecent, is "Why would you do that?" followed by, "That's crazy." And you wouldn't be lying; it is crazy...and bold and maybe even a little arrogant, but at the same time it's an incredibly selfless act of protest that strikes out at repression and inequality. Not to mention it's brave as can be.
Her desert odyssey starts with a catering gig. But not just any catering gig—it's a royal gig...literally. She lands a job working the wedding of the Crown Prince of Qatar but she has bigger plans for after the wedding. She is going to be a "bicycle ambassador provocateur"! At first the plan was to bike across a huge chunk of the planet in what she calls her "ring around Iraq," but she quickly learns that just isn't going to happen. Her revised plan takes her across Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Along the way she is honked at and gawked at, ogled and honored, come on to and even proposed to. She is met with wonderful generosity and kindness as well as discrimination and harassment. The people she meets—a bookish Egyptian, an astonished Jordanian woman, the Bedouin Johnny Depp—all know one thing about Hunken: she is an extraordinary person.
It is not surprising that an incredible journey such as Hunken's would inspire a great show. She gives us a performance filled with all the flavor of the exotic scenes and character of the people. Hunken excels at detailed and vivid descriptions of everything she sees and smells and hears. She is funny and honest. Her writing has a nice balance of good travel writing and performance writing. She divides her story into three acts that build perfectly on each other. I really like the way the story unfolds. It is packed with danger and triumph and lots of memorable characters.
Hunken's character work is refined and nuanced. She has an excellent ear for accents. She introduces us to a lot people that have similar accents but she always manages to find a distinction in the lilt or tone or posture of each character. It was like I was meeting a new person every time. Her performance is absolutely fantastic. She exposes herself as vulnerable to both the kindness and the harassment and yet she never loses her enormous inner strength. She also doesn't shy away from answering tough questions that were really asked of her on her travels. She helped me to understand a little why she would want to ride her bike across three Middle Eastern countries. The show is supported by some solid direction from Laura Newman and an evocative light design courtesy of Jessica Lynn Hinkle and Evan True. The soundtrack is also great, even gets a few laughs, but I'm not sure who is responsible for that. I loved that we get to see some real pictures from the journey we just experienced at the very end. That's a nice button.
Blondie of Arabia has all the elements of what makes a monologue profound. It has as its base great inspiration from a real life experience; it has a provocative cause and then adds an extremely talented writer and performer on top of that. Hunken is a monologist to be watched. This is solo performance at its very best.