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New Anatomies, Foreground Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. "The European tribal wars," observes a Sufi priest in New Anatomies, "are more bitter than ours but are conducted with much more subtlety." Caught in the middle of them was Isabelle Eberhardt, a real-life explorer who roamed the deserts of the Middle East garbed as a Tunisian youth. But in 1897, with the French occupation of the Arab states in doubt, a cross-dressing European teenager meant trouble--and not just for her scandalized relatives.

Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker contrasts the rebellious Eberhardt with other gender-bending personalities of the time--among them a lesbian journalist in Paris and a surprisingly straitlaced male impersonator in the British music halls. Five actresses play 17 roles here, including a full spectrum of male characters, from the passive Antoine Eberhardt to the shrewd Colonel Lyautey.

Director Allen Jeffrey Rein varies the pace agreeably, bridging scene changes with dumb shows that amplify the action. But the question of whether Eberhardt was a protofeminist flouting the status quo or a fin de siecle slacker looking for kicks remains unanswered, since at no time in the course of this Foreground Theatre production do the performers transcend their own mannerisms to emerge as anything but bright, healthy, modern young American actresses not yet ready to explore the multiple dimensions of Wertenbaker's dense text.

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