Bernadette Nason is one of those unexpected treasures who make Austin theatre such a pleasure to explore. I first saw her at the Austin Playhouse in Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward shortly after we arrived in Austin almost five years ago -- before, in fact, the notion of writing about Austin theatre even occurred to me. Bernadette played Madame Arcati, the loony medium who unleashes the spirit world upon the wealthy but hapless author Charles Condamine. She was funny, eccentric and quite undisturbed by the cantankerous ghosts; her performance brought her the 2007-2008 B. Iden Payne award as outstanding featured actress in a comedy.
Bernie's persona -- and her personae onstage -- bring to my mind a jaunty little ballad by Rodgers and Hart for the forgotten stage comedy I Married An Angel(1938). It's titled A Twinkle in Your Eye and the opening bars are, "You can do any little thing that you've a mind to/But you must do it with a twinkle in your eye." No, I never saw the show; I discovered this mischievous little ditty on Dawn Upshaw's compilation of R&H tunes:
So where did this very English charmer come from? She has decided to give us some of her personal history, working with colleague Michael Stuart first on a one-woman performance entitled Tea in Tripoli describing her life as a tender young expatriate in Libya and now with the sequel Dinner in Dubai. Nason is a gifted story teller and earns some of her daily bread from that art; this narrative of just over ninety minutes has the comfortable confiding intimacy of a good heart-to-heart over a couple of bottles of wine. Or perhaps over the bottle of gin that plays a key role in the wild dinner of the title.
Nason was employed in the United Arab Emirates from the mid-eighties though the early nineties, initially as the personal assistant to the manager of a luxury hotel on the coast near Abu Dhabi. That enigmatic figure was referred to by his staff as "MSG" -- those were his initials, not the additive common in Chinese takeaway. She cheerfully describes her arrival from London as the big-eyed trainee, vividly evoking the oddities and unreality of air-conditioned luxury in the Arab world. This small-boned, bright-eyed young woman found to her surprise that she was to become not only the keeper of the secrets (the origin, after all, of the word "secretary") but also the admonisher and the enforcer of policies.
As a "representative of senior management" she was enjoined to work long and stay late, especially in order to present a smiling party face to fill out a table of lavishly wealthy strangers who knew nothing about her and cared even less. I listened appreciatively to her light-hearted accounts of the management's bizarre efforts to provide Christmas jollity in the desert and to the miseries of "representation," all too familiar to me from a diplomatic career. And of that disastrous dinner; with a thrill I thoroughly approved her ascent into eloquence, heedless celebration and the memorable status of party girl.
Bernadette's account of her years in the Emirates is wry, quizzical and reflective. Now, the performance genre of the one-actor narrative is often a brash exercise in egotism, a rant mocking self, friends, family and the oddities of daily life. Not so here. Crafted now in retrospect and at this remove, the account of her careers in Dubai as she transferred from one boss to another is a sort of Bildungstück, a theatrical description of the events and lessons learned by a young woman not entirely certain of herself.
Dinner in Dubaiis a new text, gracefully shaped; at times during the first half hour or so as she shifted mentally from chapter to chapter of her text the actress involuntarily let escape a little "er- " while recalibrating. We're not used to hearing that from this assured professional actress, a performer who's always on top of her lines. Though probably not intentional, those little sounds of hesitation were exactly right in depicting the young Bernadette and her brave façade of self assurance.
We float with her through those uncertain certainties; then she becomes even more animated and articulate as she describes her discovery of the stage, thanks to doughty expat amateur theatricals. There are reverberations of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the war that flashed out there not too far over the horizon. Then unexpectedly and with a flourish, Nason brings all this learning together and tells us just how this chipper English adventuress wound up in Austin. It's an eminently satisfying account and an outcome for which we can all be grateful.
Dinner in Dubai plays three more times at the Summer Acts! festival at the City Theatre, 3823 Airport Road: Thursday at 9 p.m. and Saturday at noon and at 8 p.m.