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Coffee With Bernadette Nason: Scary life in Libya leads to witty reflections

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Though it's been more than 25 years since Bernadette Nason left her native England and moved to Libya, the actress hasn't yet thoroughly mined the stories of her eye-opening time in the oil-rich northern Africa country.

With her clipped British accent and lively personality, Nason has charmed more than a few social gatherings, regaling people with wit about the absurdities of European expatriate life in a strict Islamic nation.

She extracted a few choice stories for a short monologue she performed in 2004 at the annual Austin fringe theater showcase, FronteraFest.

But with "Tea in Tripoli," her one-woman show that opens today, Nason bundles up the best of her bizarre-yet-true tales from a little more than a year in Libya for a full-length entertainment.

"I hadn't really been paying attention much to what was going on in Libya at the time," she explains over iced tea recently at Flightpath Coffee House. Hence, in the mid-1980s, when she was at a crossroads in her life in London, she impulsively accepted a job as an administrative assistant with an Italian oil company in Libya.

"They thought British women brought a certain prestige," Nason says of her former employer.

She thought she was in for a well-paying foreign adventure.

She was. Just not the carefree adventure she had originally imagined.

With dictatorial leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi's viselike grip on the nation and the strict enforcement of Shariah, or Islamic religious law, Libya offered no personal freedom for European expats.

"There was no theater, no movies, no books, no culture," says Nason. "We had no entertainment unless we made it ourselves."

"All my books and music were confiscated when I arrived," she says. "I was left with just three (cassette) tapes to listen to."

"Libya was the dying ground for bad British pop music," she quips.

The recent democratic uprisings in Libya and across the Arab world inspired Nason to re-examine her stories and form them into a 90-minute show.

A veteran of the Austin stage, Nason is animated, birdlike, full of energy. It seems impossible to imagine her vigor contained.

But it was.

As with other expats, Nason's weekly letters home to her mother in England were subject to the purview of government censors, as were her phone calls. She wasn't permitted to drive or move freely in public without a male escort.

Expat life was self-contained within its own community, markedly separated from anything, or anybody, Libyan.

It was a surreal way to live, to say the least, but fearful, too.

"The problem with fear is that you start to get used to it and start to take it for granted," Nason says.

Humor proved a salve, especially in the years since as she has wrestled with recollections of the ultimately harrowing experience of living in Libya.

"The stories are funny, and I frame them as funny (in the show)," Nason says. "Humor is a natural way to deal with a difficult situation."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Tea in Tripoli'

When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Tuesday, 8 p.m. Sunday; show continues through July 17

Where: City Theatre, 3823 Airport Blvd.

Tickets: $15

Information:www.citytheatreaustin.org