Reviewed by: Ron Cohen
The intensity simmers at just below the boiling point through much of this production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids.” And it seems to be exactly the right temperature for this heady cocktail of ritual role-playing, class hatred, humiliation, self-loathing, and sexuality. If you begin to feel more than a mite uncomfortable watching the two committed women playing the titular roles, it’s undoubtedly what Genet wanted in this classic of post–World War II French theater, first performed in 1947. (The show uses Bernard Frechtman’s translation.) Sisters Claire and Solange work for the imperious Madame, and when she’s not around they spend their time acting out how they will kill her. When we first see the maids, Solange is playing her sister, while Claire is portraying Madame, and identities continue to slip back and forth as the play progresses and Madame herself appears. The urgency of the maids’ fantasy is heightened by the fact that they have sent anonymous letters to the authorities falsely accusing Madame’s lover of a crime. He had been arrested but now has been released. Madame goes off to celebrate with him, and the maids worry that their plot will be uncovered. Director Tracy Cameron Francis has staged the production for maximum immediacy within the fairly intimate quarters of a rehearsal studio, imaginatively transformed into Madame’s boudoir. Laura Taber Bacon’s nicely detailed set design has the walls covered with garment bags, suggesting Madame’s affluence. The audience is clustered like peeping Toms at one end of the space. Bushra Laskar as Solange and Iracel Rivero as Claire give beautifully calibrated performances in these difficult roles. Their portrayals are awash in waves of emotion, but they never lose credibility and manage to hold on to audience empathy. Madame is portrayed by Alex Runnels, a lanky black fellow bedecked in a blond wig and high heels. But there’s little sense of the drag queen in his straightforward performance. Rather, it adds to Genet’s off-kilter vision of reality. Emily Lippolis’ costumes and Julian Mesri’s eerie sound design are other fine points of this ambitious production from a young theater company.
HOLY LAND- ( Poetry New York)
After leaving a performance of Mohamed Kacimi’s Holy Land, I walked down 6th Avenue like I had just woken from a dream in which I watched everyone I love die at a party. In other words, the performance began humorously (albeit also quite darkly) and ended in a stunning crescendo of misery.
Holy Land is the story of five characters trying to get by in a city under siege. At first, everything is dark humor punctuated with the sound of explosions. Over hookah tokes and arak, Imen (Pia Haddad), a young woman whose parents are either missing or dead, trades witty one-liners with her neighbors Alia (Ana Grosse) and Yad (Jojo Gonzales). Imen and Alia discuss the ass-fattening properties of Greek yogurt as helicopters buzz overhead. Yad preoccupies himself with drink. Amin (Sean Carvajal), the son of Alia and Yad, finds their nonchalance shocking and interprets the widespread destruction around him as a sign of God’s existence and an affirmation of his dangerous piety. Ian (Gil Perez-Abraham), a soldier, occasionally appears to interrogate Imen or Alia. Soon, the bombs hit too close to home and the neighbors’ home is destroyed, killing everyone inside. From this point, Holy Landbecomes much more somber and the last half of the show is imbued with the feeling that everything is about to unravel.
A strength of Holy Land is its refusal to create a dichotomy of good and bad for it characters. Yes, at first glance, Ian seems like the frontrunner for the play’s villain, but his bravado masks some emotional trauma that compels him to shout “I’m a good person! I’m a really good person!” every so often. Amin says and does some incredibly cruel (even unforgivable) things, but one feels sorrow, rather than schadenfreude, when he starts to cower in fear of soldiers closing in on him.
Haddad’s Imen is young and light without being naïve. As Alia, Grosse can make the audience laugh by coldly calling her recently-deceased neighbor a “gossiping bitch” and then earn their sympathy back by throwing her entire weight against her son to stop him from killing. Carvajal and Perez-Abraham make it easy to sympathize with their twisted and violent characters. All of the actors give wonderful performances, but Gonzales does something extraordinary with his performance as Yad. He handles humor and pathos effortlessly, making Yad believable as both the funny drunk who says things like “Just because we’ve lost our land doesn’t mean we have to give up our drunkenness” and the anguished soul who screams wearily, “I am the mass grave of the nights that don’t know where the fuck to go.”
Written by Kacimi and translated by Chantal Bilodeau, the dialogue in Holy Land is bold and exquisite. One of my favorite lines is Yad’s response to Alia complaining about the holes in her socks. He jokes, “That’s occupation, my love. It puts holes in our socks…the sky…the earth…our bodies.” The flippant dialogue morphs into something subtle but profound, and this is only one example in a play that contains language that is consistently intelligent and poetic.
My only contention with Holy Land is the graphic rape scene toward the end of the performance. However, as jarring as that scene was, it also felt necessary to the story, and I mention it only as a trigger warning to potential viewers.
An insert in Holy Land’s program implores the reader to spread the word if they enjoyed the show, so please do your best to catch a performance of Holy Land. The remaining shows for this run are from May 7 through May 10 at HERE Arts Center.
Orphan, vagabond, thief, autodidact, homosexual: all of these outré identities contributed to the French writer Jean Genet’s profound sense of marginalization. Still, despite his personal history and vocal support for aggrieved populations throughout the world, Genet was not much of a revolutionary, since he thought that, even when revolutions were nominally successful, it was only a matter of time until the oppressed became the oppressors. This fatalistic attitude towards radical change is at the dramatic heart of The Maids, Genet’s 1947 one-act play about the revenge fantasies of two long-suffering housemaids. Based loosely on a true story from the 1930s involving two French sisters, convicted of murdering an entire family whose home they kept, The Maids poses several production challenges, not least of which is Genet’s indifference to narrative clarity. With the help of a talented three-person cast, all of whom demonstrate an obvious affinity for Genet’s unconventional plotting, mordant wit, and often opaque lyricism, director Tracy Francis Cameron meets these challenges head-on, smartly unpacking Genet’s complicated ideas about repression and struggle while also fearlessly tweaking the play for a modern audience. For those unfamiliar with The Maids, its opening is a head scratcher: for about the first quarter of the play, the audience witnesses a melodramatic exchange between two women, ostensibly an abused servant and her haughty mistress. Occasional out-of-character remarks, however, suggest that something is off about the scene we’re witnessing, until finally an alarm clock sounds, and everything becomes clear: the women are, in fact, both housemaids, who have distilled their feelings of hatred and self-loathing into a highly ritualized burlesque, which, if they ever had enough time to see their fantasy through to the end, would culminate with the death of their employer, known only as Madame (Alex Runnels). The housemaids, Solange (Bushra Laskar) and Claire (Iracel Rivero), want to turn their violent dreams into reality; and, we suspect that they will, especially considering the play’s source material. But Genet knows that rebellion, whether merited or not, is a fairly common desire, one that requires some sense of personal dignity and camaraderie to actually pursue. Solange and Claire possess neither, not only lacking respect for themselves but also for each other; as Solange tells Claire early on: “Filth doesn’t love filth.” Cameron stages the play intimately, in effect putting the audience in Madame’s bedroom, where all of the play’s real and fantasized action takes place. It’s a decidedly unexpected vision, with pink Betsey Johnson garment bags hung around the walls, a shabby dressing table positioned just in front of the audience, and, in the center of the room, a large bed, strewn with rose petals; the latter more or less doubles as an altar for some of Solange and Claire’s more ecstatic imaginings. All of this whimsical tackiness, well assembled by scenic designer Laura Taber Bacon, portends the show’s biggest surprise, a clever reminder that oppression can wear many faces.
A CurtainUp Report: Psalms of a Questionable Nature
Dark, intimate and truly compelling, Psalms of a Questionable Nature has just about everything going for it. To begin with, the space is absolutely ideal: the play takes place in a basement over real time, making the downstairs auditorium in the Lafayette Street Theatre feel shockingly realistic. This new play by Marisa Wegryzn is centered on a pair of stepsisters who meet for the first time in order to clean out their recently deceased parents’ basement. A familiar setup, but a level of menace is added by the fact that the parents in question had a very frightening hobby: sending biological weapons to unsuspecting victims through the mail (a timely subject, considering the anthrax stories in the news lately). The basement was their lab, and is packed with dangerous phials and infected rodents, and it’s unclear whether the two sisters are infected or not. What’s even more disturbing are the secrets and dark pasts of the two stepsisters: paranoid and damaged Moo (Emily Kunkel), who lived with the terrorist parents, and the older, confident news anchor Greta (Carrie Heitman), who has some demons of her own. Wegryzn has an excellent ear for dialogue, and an ability to surprise us throughout with character revelations (only a few of which strain credibility). Kunkel and Heitman, both excellent, are well served by director Tracy Francis, who utilizes the realistic setting to forge a real connection between Greta and Moo. “We are horrible people who come from horrible people,” as Greta says at one point in the play. Maybe, but it sure makes for compelling theatre. At 45 Bleecker – Lafayette Theater. 90 minutes. [Furay]
What’s in your basement?
“Psalms of a Questionable Nature” follows two young women into their dead parents’ basement, the hiding place of one of the best plays in the Fringe Festival.
The first thing that is not revealed in “Psalms of a Questionable Nature” is the actual stage. The play starts — in fact, the “turn off your cell phone” announcement even takes place — in a dark stairwell. Two young women illuminated only by each other’s flashlights are arguing over who is going to own the house.”Your mom married my dad — that makes us sisters!” says Moo.”STEP-sisters,” emphasizes Greta. Appropriately enough, since they haven’t gotten past the steps yet. Greta is in perhaps her 30s, having already had a husband and child and never looked back at her cracked family in this house. Moo (Moo?) might be 15, and a stunted 15 at that, having spent 10 of those years in this house with a mad-scientist tinkerer for a dad and an ill-tempered moralist for a stepmother. Her head works in wrong ways, and she kind of knows it. These two have never been sisters, or even met, before this day. The two have been brought together by their parents’ sudden death, attributed to drunk driving late at night on a mountain road. That’s the story. “People need reasons for why things go wrong,” Greta says, quoting her deceased mother. Now, Greta needs cash from selling the house, and Moo needs to be forgotten about so she can continue to live in the house without anyone noticing, or she needs to be taken in by a family member — of which she has, at most, this one.On go the lights and into the basement go these two, deeper into the past and the future. “Don’t go there,” you might want to say at several times during the play, but of course they do. The secrets of the basement are, well, somewhat improbable, but we go along with them as they are revealed in all their farfetchedness. We have our reasons — and our reasons have names, and their names are Carrie Heitman and Emily Kunkel.Heitman, as Greta, is curt, defensive and stoic — becoming aware only incrementally of the strange depths that her estranged family has sunk to over the years of her absence, she dutifully tries to clean up after the disasters as fast as she can learn of them. And still, despite her protectiveness, she is never protected well enough for the onslaught of Hurricane Moo. Heitman, as Greta, is curt, defensive and stoic — becoming aware only incrementally of the strange depths that her estranged family has sunk to over the years of her absence, she dutifully tries to clean up after the disasters as fast as she can learn of them. And still, despite her protectiveness, she is never protected well enough for the onslaught of Hurricane Moo. Emily Kunkel, as Moo, is a force of nature. Her character is, by turns, naive and knowing, childlike and out-and-out dangerous, and Kunkel is all these things from one minute to the next. She’s both scary and hilarious. Scalarious. This strange little family-secrets drama plus campfire horror story is (based on my own small sample) the buried treasure of this year’s Fringe Festival, and Kunkel is my favorite actress in the festival.
“**** (four stars) Marisa Wegrzyn’s play takes place in the filthy, trash-strewn basement of a house that has been bequeathed to a former news anchorwoman, Greta, after the death of her estranged mother and stepfather. Greta intends to clean up the house and sell it, but her plans are interrupted by her younger stepsister, Moo, and a host of disturbing family secrets. At first, you are horrified to discover what awful people the dead parents were; eventually, you also become disgusted with Moo, and the final twist leaves you equally appalled at the seemingly reasonable Greta. Although the script could dig deeper, Psalms of a Questionable Nature offers strong performances and a compellingly depressing look at the ties that bind. Greta herself sums up the moral of this story when she entreats Moo to face it: “We’re horrible people born to horrible people. Nothing can change that.” The play’s final scene does not contradict her.—Beth Levendis,
EGYPT’S REVOLUTION, RE-STAGED & RECONSIDERED
It would be impossible to view recent events in Egypt – up to and including this past month’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and the wave of sectarian and street violence that ensued – without seeing them as in some ways predictable, if not inevitable. Since the Revolution of 2011 that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak – heralding, in earnest, the start of the “Arab Spring” (a term, incidentally, viewed with deep derision by most in the Arab World; “If this was the Spring”, the thinking goes, “then what the hell is the Winter supposed to be like?”) – Egypt has see-sawed from one authoritarian regime to the next, whether under the guise of provisional military control (2011-2012), a misspent electoral mandate by the Muslim Brotherhood (2012-2013), or the military once again, this time acting with the support of widespread street protests mobilized against the Brotherhood (2013 – present.)
Each of these regimes has been transitional either in fact or in substance. None were willing, or even temperamentally equipped, to initiate the type of broad-based process of comprehensive reform, national reconciliation, and institution-building demanded by those who originally took to Tahrir Square in 2011. In their first turn at the helm, the Generals truncheoned female protestors and molested them with “virginity tests.” They kept the state security establishment firmly in place, and successfully resisted any meaningful civilian oversight over their affairs. After them, the Brothers paid lip service early on to working with secular parties, only to embark on a politically foolish exercise of attempting to remake the country in the image of their own ideological purview. President Mohamed Morsi was eventually pushed aside by a new set of generals (many of them, ironically, hand-picked by him), who quickly put in place a highly technocratic caretaker government of seculars and liberals, while also (as it now seems apparent) planning a massive-scale purge of all Muslim Brotherhood protest sites and whipping much of the Egyptian population into an hysteria of rank xenophobia and anti-Brotherhood bloodlust. Since August 14th, the death toll has surpassed 800.
If the enduring lesson of the 18 Days, as Egyptians reverentially refer to the Revolution of 2011, was the utter falsity of the Mubarak-era choice between authoritarian impunity and runaway Islamism, it was a lesson either immediately lost on those in power, or purposefully ignored by them. Meanwhile, in opposition, seculars and liberals proved themselves more adept at sloganeering and self-sabotage than coalescing into a unified political force at the ballot box. And while a robust culture of dissent and political satire has visibly taken shape over the past three years (as exemplified by Dr. Bassem Youssef’s Daily Show-inspired, “El Bernameg”), it has failed to create a wide enough discursive space from which could emerge a viable political alternative to the two extremes of military authoritarianism and Islamist adventurism. As a result of these and other factors, the long-standing, often deadly, duel between Egypt’s military and its Islamists has not only persisted, but deepened and intensified with higher stakes.
Egypt is now at a moment of reckoning never before encountered in its multi-millennia history. “It could never happen here”, it has often been said, “Egyptians would never fight other Egyptians.” Implicit in this assertion is the belief that Egyptians are characteristically different (in a fashion, superior) to other Arabs, unafflicted by the type of clan-based, hyper-sectarian civil strife that has plagued post-colonial creation-states like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq throughout their modern histories. The Egyptian national identity, grounded in an odd mixture of pan-Arab nationalism, Islamic history, Coptic patrimony, Deltan peasant folkways, Pashalic gentility, and (only-when-convenient) Pharaonic antiquity, was simply too authentic, too historically cohesive, too confidently at home with itself to be undone by the kind of petty internecine warfare displayed by weaker nations who don’t even belong together in the same states. That assumption is now being torn asunder. The reality that many Egyptians are only now waking up to is that they have indeed been fighting one another for decades now, it’s just that one side in the conflict wears epaulets and ribbons, and the other sides beards and skullcaps. And for the first time in Egypt’s history, this conflict is being played out not under cover of the deep state, but out in the open, in the streets with AK47’s and Molotov cocktails, and with the rest of the country caught literally in the crossfire.
At a time when the very purpose of revolution is being called into question in Egypt, it seems as much timely as fated that Ibrahim El-Husseiny’s play “Comedy of Sorrows” be making its return to New York this week. “Comedy of Sorrows” was one of the first theatrical responses to the Revolution that emerged from Egypt and when it first toured the States in early 2012, it already handled the subject of revolution with a kind of cautious optimism giving way to freighted ambivalence. By El-Husseiny’s lights, revolution seemed less an historical event to be celebrated and more an existential condition through which each character must enter and exit over the course of the play, and then only with varying degrees of success. Hybrid Theatre’s production at HERE expands on this ambivalence and weighs it down even further. Tracy Cameron Francis directs a production that pushes the revolution far beyond the boundaries of space and time, throwing it into a surreal fog of claustrophobic chaos and misapprehended memory.
The production opens in medias res, in this case, quite literally, with a scene originally purposed for the middle of the play. A red velvet cake is sliced up and consumed by military personnel, who have been embedded in the audience. They brag of ill-gotten gains and multi-billion dollar payouts, speaking in innuendo, gluttonously licking their fingers of cream cheese frosting. They then quickly exit the stage in urgent heed of nature’s call and this is the last the audience ever sees of them. Otherwise, the 18 days have already begun to toll at the play’s outset. The revolution first appears not as a gathering of protestors in a public square, but as a pile of garbage being sifted through by two vagrants, Yusuf and Niqrazan (Adi Hanash and Bobbac Kashani, respectively). Condemned to the City of the Dead, a teaming, informal settlement that had previously been in use as a cemetery since the 7th century, they forage for food in a heap of discarded signs and pamphlets. The refuse reads like a capsule summary of the past three years of political life in Egypt, “Game Over . . . The Army . . . Bread . . . Muslim Brothers . . . War. . . Corruption . .. Salafis . . Paper Parties . . . Military Rule.” They are either observed, or narrated, by Uncle Hafiz (Gordon Kupperstein), an ancient cemetery guard who pretends to be deaf and mute and speaks only to himself in Classical Arabic (a linguistic feature employed by each of the characters throughout the play). Niqrazan sits and behaves in the manner of a dog. Yusuf, though more reflective, is resigned and withdrawn, until he unearths from the garbage Doha (Najla Said, reprising the role from 2012), an affluent, upper class woman, who had hidden in the garbage of Tahrir in order to evade police capture. Doha, it turns out, is an old flame of Yusuf’s from university, but she does not remember having met him and is instantly repulsed by his living conditions. “Wake up already”, she admonishes them both, “or have you become addicted to humiliation and fear and filth?” The symbolism of Doha’s character is not altogether subtle (in this production, she is clothed in the colors of the Egyptian flag), but the personification of Egypt as a cosseted bourgeoise, reacting to events as they unfold, seemingly out of touch with the material agonies of her own society, is perhaps the central characterization of the play and one critical to understanding the narrative El-Husseiny sought to create.
Doha flees the City of the Dead into the larger city, a disorienting, seemingly unshapen space of shadowy figures and extra-diegetic voices. It is in these spaces that we are introduced to the other characters of the play: Nada (Lily Balsen), a peasant woman whose fiance was gunned down by an officer, Mansur (Raphael Eilenberg), a protestor who has taken to the streets in defiance of his police sergeant father, and Suliman (Paul Kelly), Mansur’s father who takes seemingly sadistic pleasure in the torture of prisoners. Uncle Hafiz is present in nearly every scene, as either detached observer or delphic authority. The narrative bifurcation that takes place in each character is clearest within him. Arabic, a language that differs substantially between its classical and colloquial forms, is repurposed in translation as the idiom of memory vs. the idiom of personhood. Uncle Hafiz, it seems, already knows the outcome of events from the first (“Ideas are made by prophets and stolen by thieves”, he warns in the beginning, “Hide your ideas; the thieves are coming.”) And yet it is the idiom of memory that tells us more about the person giving voice to it than any individual action taken by the characters.
Uncle Hafiz speaks of history, more as an indecipherable burden to be borne by the living than the mere record of fact. Both Nada and Yusuf speak of love, and indeed it is the quest for love, either extinguished or unrequited, that incites both of them into action. Suliman speaks of power for its own purpose, and Mansur, of rebellion and youth. Niqrazan, most tellingly, doesn’t speak in any internal voice at all, desperate instead to uncover the instrumentality of his own debasement, and through this, the discovery (and one hopes, the redemption) of his own personal dignity. It is Doha’s voice – the voice of Egypt personified – that leads the viewer to nowhere in particular, other than deeper and deeper into her own confusion (“I am Doha . . . of nobody”, she states, often plainly and dismissively.) Her revelation is one of disillusionment, both with herself and the world around her. That the people do indeed bring down the regime in the end happens seemingly in spite of her (albeit on her behalf) and not because of any action she herself has undertaken. Within moments of the regime’s fall, she can only stand by helplessly as Nada becomes paranoically, almost schizophrenically, consumed with a fear of flying bullets. In contrast to Uncle Hafiz’s early admonishment, Nada begs, “Hide me . . . hide yourselves,” before curling into a fetal position in Doha’s lap.
Comedy of Sorrows is not a treacly, doe-eyed liberation plot, where the characters arrive in the end at some elevated, and qualitatively improved, understanding of themselves and the society they wish to inhabit. The ambiguity here is purposeful and instructive. Revolutions are indeed complicated, messy, and disruptive affairs. Sure, they may carry for some a certain polemical appeal; what, after all, could provide greater proof of the indomitable power of human agency than the very upending of the normative order? But revolutions are most accurately assessed by their aftermath, rather than by their mere occurrence. It takes the work of individuals, often with disparate worldviews and agendas, to salve the political ruptures from which revolutions, by necessity, must emerge. The Egyptian example has so far only underscored the very real dangers for a society where such individuals do not in fact come to the fore. It is no coincidence then that the play lacks a central protagonist. In an interview in Cairo in late 2012, El-Husseiny addressed the dramaturgical idea of the “collective hero”, which emphasized conflict within the collective, instead of focusing on a singular hero. That the characters are culturally and socio-economically atomized, brought together only incidentally by a revolution that appears on stage but once, says as much about the muddled reality of the 18 Days as it does about the society it sought to change.
And yet, by trying to tell the story of an Arab revolution, El-Husseiny also tells a more universal story about the fundamental precariousness of revolutions, both in terms of societal outcomes and in terms of the circumstances that bring them about. El-Husseiny, a civil servant and mathematician by training, who originally set out to study theatre criticism, approaches his work with an acute sense of theory. He speaks of providing his audience, “with the Arab reality . . . and the ways that the theatre in particular is able to absorb that reality.” Well, the Arab reality, at least with respect to revolutions these past few years, has been a parade of horrors interrupted on occasion by ephemeral flashes of hope. Tunisia is at a marginally less violent, but still dangerous, stalemate between its factions. For all the political posturing surrounding it in the U.S., Libya has collapsed into a failed state with completely porous borders. Bahrain crushed its popular uprising with barely an eyebrow raised by the West. Syria is now intractably mired in a gruesome civil war doubling as a proxy war between the Assad regime’s sponsors and the Gulf countries. El-Husseiny see his role as not simply the dramatizing of an historic event, but as modeling a kind of civic behavior in society. ”There is a dialogue happening in theatre occurring between human beings,” he told Culturebot back in December, “and this dialogue can hopefully model for people how that dialogue should be taking place in their own lives and in society as a whole.” As Comedy of Sorrows demonstrates, this modeling is also inclusive of the dialogue between those in power, and those under their control.
In a society now seemingly bent on the eradication of an entire segment of its polity, it is not entirely clear where such a dialogue would even begin. A more cynical, more feckless, interpretation of this new production might center on where the characters would realistically find themselves now, three years on. Might Doha be cheerleading the Generals in their rout of the Muslim Brotherhood? Might Nada have been gunned down with the brothers on Rabaa El-Adawiya Square? Might Niqrazan or Youssef still even be alive? Might Mansour? Or his father, the Sergeant? That Uncle Hafiz’s fate –constrained as he is to the literal recesses of history – seems the most certain among all the characters in the play says as much about his station in life as it does about the limits of revolution to change anything about it.
And yet everywhere you look in Egypt, there are intimations of a civic future beyond the two authoritarian extremes set by the Generals and the Brothers, and oftentimes it has been the work of professional and citizen artists like El-Husseiny that have most effectively brought this future to light. The weeks leading up to the June 30th protests that removed Mohamed Morsi from power were marked by nightly protest vigils in front of the Ministry of Culture featuring live music, poetry readings, and performances by the Cairo Ballet. During the 2011 revolution, a vibrant and hitherto unseen culture of street art unfurled almost overnight on the walls of Egypt’s cities, attacking not only the Mubarak regime, but also the Generals and the Brothers who replaced him, and more boldly, issues like sectarianism, violence against women, and homophobia. The anti-Mubarak protests on Tahrir in 2011 elevated Egypt’s famously ribald (and often off-color) vernacular culture to the level of public protest (for his part, El-Husseiny was in Tahrir throughout most of the 18 Days writing call-and-response cheers). All of these serve to demonstrate how a culture of discourse and creative expression need not necessarily be viewed as the self-indulgent flourish of a type of elitist high-brow secular humanism, but as a critical feature of a society willing to ask some especially difficult questions, both of itself and of those in power. “That’s all democracy is”, Daily Show host Jon Stewart told an Egyptian audience earlier this summer on El Bernameg, “the ability to express yourself and be heard.” He also added, “Isn’t that all government is? We all get together and decide as a majority who the assholes are.”
Right now, however, it is the most polarized, most atavistic voices that resonate the loudest, and by all indications, they are not easily given to self-criticism. While there is still the possibility of a democratically accountable, representative government emerging out of the miasma, it will almost certainly occur in a climate of deep distrust, division, and paranoia. Egypt’s military currently enjoys a level of support perhaps unmatched under Mubarak, and with a media infrastructure almost entirely under their control (and with early reports of harassment and detention of foreign journalists) they appear primed to brook even less public dissent than ever before. Moreover, both the Generals and the Brotherhood have demonstrated a surprising alacrity and ease with manipulating public opinion and directing popular ire toward imagined threats from without. In the latest iteration of the conspiratorial strain in Egyptian media culture (a phenomenon grounded in a legitimate grievance over American foreign policy in the region), Egypt’s seculars and liberals are now in complete agreement with the far right wing of American politics that President Obama is operating in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, an assertion whose internal logic makes the Tea Party conceit sound downright sensible. “Just around the corner”, Uncle Hafiz warns all too presciently in his final soliloquy, “lie the idolaters of rulers.”
It has been oft-stated, and is entirely true, that it will be existentially impossible for Egyptians to return to the status quo ante under Mubarak. What El-Husseiny has described as “the fear barrier” has indeed been shattered, perhaps permanently. Moreover, the likelihood of a Saudi-style theocracy where all culture serves a strictly confessional purpose now seems, to put it mildly, remote. But having existed in a state of Perpetual Thermidore for almost three years now, Egyptians seem more willing than ever to double-down on familiar patterns of behavior, rather than amble bravely into the chaos, as Comedy of Sorrows envisions they might.
Theatre Pizazz: ‘The Holy Land’ – HERE Arts Center
By Marcina Zaccaria
‘Holy Land’ is about a city under siege. Careful friendships are forged as soldiers are dying and bombs explode at nearby houses.
The script by Mohamed Kacimi, who is a poet, playwright, and journalist based in Paris, neither glorifies war nor paints a false picture. As visiting friends share intimate conversations and lovers find themselves in peril, all of the characters continue forward.
Kacimi’s script is deeply poetic. In the text, the main characters find freedom beyond devastation. They discuss getting through checkpoints and find strength through chaos. It is an objective world about strife and tragedy. The characters aren’t so much hoping to make sense of the war, but live through it. Though they are often cool and aloof, they are deeply entangled in their current relationships, and try to create something better.
The actors do a fine job of defining who they are in the midst of the chaos. Jojo Gonzalez plays Yad, Ana Gross is Alia, Sean Carvajal is Amin, Pia Haddad is Imen, and Gil Perez Abraham is Ian. They are a bit seamless as an ensemble. Though many of the scenes in the play are disquieting, the actors do manage to create a world where we can look at the nature of war through their experiences. There are moments that are funny, and other moments that are sad and desolate.
The play is not so disjointed or so nebulous that we cannot see. Language about horses and crows and dust reminds us that we are in a heightened world where anything can happen. A cat named Jesus takes refuge with its owner in the house that is the main location for the action of the play. All of the actors are quite prepared to lead the audience through the drama, and express what it is like to survive in the war-torn land.
‘Holy Land’ is uncommon as it describes how people claim the land they are standing on. Who has the ground is central to the drama. Director Tracy Cameron Francis does a fine job of letting us know who the characters are and how they change throughout the play. There is careful attention to the staging, but perhaps the play could have seen served by the kind of poetry in movement that was evident in the text.
The design is cohesive. Charles Coes designed a soundscape where bombs are constantly exploding in the background. Sheryl Liu, who designed the set, worked with lighting designer Miguel Angel Valderrama to create a set where light shines through textured hangings on the walls. The use of shadow and light is impressive. Costume Design by Lisa Renee Jordan is contemporary and effortless.
By Georgina Young-Ellis
As with many of Curious Frog Theater Company’s productions, “The Maids,” by Jean Genet, begins before it begins, with a character making herself at home in the space while the audience members wander in and take their seats. That space, designed by Laura Taber Bacon, a pink loft, rose bed in the center, fuschia Betsey Johnson garment bags plastering the walls, is as much a character as the actors. We, as spectators, are an afterthought, taking up only a quarter of the area while the actors roam the length and width of the room. There is no stage. Nothing divides us from the action. The lighting, designed by Michael Megliola, is incorporated into the set by use of lamps which only the actors control. To me, that level of realism in theater is exhilarating. It indicates that people are living in the space, rather than merely reacting to it. The realism pretty much stops there. The play opens with a kind of dance, representing the characters’ relationships to their “Madame” and to their surroundings. They then play out their own melodrama of servant and mistress. The beautiful language in Genet’s piece (translated from the French) is poetry, and we must interpret as we follow the plot. We are not always sure what is real and what is in the characters’ minds. This creates levels of surprise throughout the show: some of the playwright’s making, some of the director’s. They are surprises that make you gasp. For the most part, the acting was strong. The ability of all the actors in regard to movement and how it was used to define character was fascinating, and executed to perfection. The director, Tracy Cameron Francis, obviously had a strong hand in choreographing where and how the actors would move, which left them free to explore the depths of emotion that their parts called for. Iracel Rivero, as Claire, was by turns regal, haughty, subservient, groveling, and pathetic. Bushra Laskar portrayed her sister Solange as a frighteningly deceptive minion – able to transform from submissive to dominatrix in a flash. Alex Runnels, as Madame, was a wonder. The character seemed the personification of aloof upper class, so caught up in her world that she could not conceive of her servants as human. All three actors more than accomplished, in my opinion, what the playwright intended, and that is no easy task given the language. Curious Frog’s productions always surprise, delight and challenge convention. “The Maids” fulfills the theater-goer in all those ways.