A theatrical pick’n’mix from Beirut
The city may not have been overflowing with theater over the last 12 months, but the performances have nevertheless covered all the bases. The year’s theater included three social satires – one on lost traditions, another on the wedding industry and the third on the importance of appearances. Three one-woman shows explored first love, past relationships, and the Medea myth as it relates to modern women. In addition to these offerings director Lina Abyad raised the bar with two excellent productions, while U.K. theater company Imitating the Dog gave a spectacular genre-defying performance as part of the 2012 Samir Kassir Spring Festival. Al-Diktator (The Dictator)
Lina Abyad’s contemporary take on Issam Mahfouz’s 1969 work on power, delusion and obsession starred Julia Kassar and Aida Sabra as Mahfouz’s power-crazed general and her tragicomic sidekick Saadoun. Staged in the midst of the Arab Spring, Abyad’s interpretation retained the work’s existentialist edge while exploring the darker side of Mahfouz’s savagely comic rendering of the dictator. Kassar and Sabra gave flawless performances as the delusional pair, daily living out their fantasies of control and revenge – making this timely restaging of a Lebanese masterpiece one of the year’s finest performances.
Habeebti Raja’i a’al-Takht
(Come Back to Bed, Love)
Abyad’s second production of the year was a total contrast with her first. This new Lebanese translation of American playwright Greg Kalleres’ “A Beautiful Spell,” is an unlikely comedy about falling out of love. Jad and Lina (Elie Youssef and Sahar Assaf) have been married for years and are sleepwalking through life, when one night they realize they no longer love one another. A simple premise perhaps, but one exploited to advantage by Assaf and Youssef, who both gave commendable comic performances as the unlucky couple, while conveying the play’s deeper themes of married life and the intersection between passion and habit.
Reasons to be Pretty
Neil Labute’s satirical exploration of the importance of physical appearances was the second American story to be given a Beirut makeover this year. Directed and adapted by Jacques Maroun, it featured an all-star cast – Nada Abou Farhat, Talal al-Jurdi and Elie Mitri, alongside Nadine Labaki in her theater debut. Maroun succeeded in transplanting the play for a local audience, retaining the bulk of the script – which works well in a Lebanese context, where designer clothes are de rigueur, and plastic surgery is a status symbol. With powerful performances from Jurdi and Labaki, whose on-stage chemistry was both hilarious and moving, “Reasons to be Pretty” lived up to the hype garnered by its celebrity cast.
El Orbaa Bi Noss El Joumaa
(The Wednesday in the Middle of the Week)
Another exploration of love and relationships, but this time focusing on marriage, director, writer and comedian Betty Touatel’s latest play was written for a Lebanese audience and a specific Lebanese cast. This satirical black comedy examines Lebanon’s lucrative wedding industry, exploring problems facing Lebanese of different classes, sexes and generations – from a young engaged couple who can’t afford to get married, to an elderly couple whose house is crumbling around them. Though less subtle than most of this year’s performances, at times approaching farce, Touatel’s number was a big hit with the opening night crowd.
Ya Ma Kan
The year’s most successful new black comedy was written by Yara Abou Haidar and Wahid al-Ajmi, and directed by Ajmi. The action follows a Lebanese family as they pass their final two hours in their ancestral home before being forced to vacate for a new owner. The play was imaginatively choreographed and the cast of six local actors gave consistently strong performances, though Hanane Hajj Ali – cast as the grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s – stole the show. This bittersweet exploration of vanishing traditions struck a balance between arousing laughter and stimulating thought about Lebanon’s future.
The year’s most abstract and avant-garde performance has to be the one-woman “Medea,” directed by Carole Abboud and starring Lebanese-German actress Dana Mikhail. A sort of theatrical collage of material on murderous and misrepresented women, the show explored the various facets of mythical Medea, said to have killed her brother, her unfaithful lover’s new paramour and her two children. Abboud’s production combined extracts from several modern texts – including Heiner Müller’s experimental “Despoiled shore/ Medeamaterial/ Landscape with Argonauts,” and Mikhail’s own writings. Aiming to show that violence can be justified, this fractured work steered clear of conventional narrative structures. This was a heavier and far more intellectually oriented play than most of the year’s fare.
Written and performed by Lithuanian monodramatist Birute Mar, this award-winning adaptation of Marguritte Duras’ famous tale of first love deserved a better turnout than it got in Beirut. This unconventional romance tells the story of an affair between a 15-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old Chinese businessman in 1930s Indo-China. Combining storytelling and theater techniques, Mar’s one-woman show graphically conveyed a teenage girl’s sexual awakening, while exploring the more disturbing side of a relationship between a young innocent and an older millionaire used to conducting business on his own terms.
2007 or how I squeezed my bubble envelopes
Compared with Mar and Mikhael’s intense performances, the third one-woman show of the year provided a refreshing change of pace. Farah Nehmé’s quirky comedy was written and performed by Chrystèle Khodr. The play essentially consisted of Khodr reading aloud from a series of letters to men who are no longer in her life. Delivered with perfect comic timing and an absolute lack of self-consciousness, Khodr’s was perhaps the year’s most effective comedic performance, infused with a subtle pathos.
Film noir met live performance at Dawar al-SHAMS earlier this year, when British theater company Imitating the Dog were invited to perform in Beirut as part of the Samir Kassir Spring Festival. Without a doubt this year’s most innovative performance, “Hotel Methuselah” is set in a nameless, war-torn country in 1940s Europe. Close-ups of the actors faces were captured in beautifully rendered film sequences, while their bodies, visible through a letter box-shaped slit at the front of the stage, moved in perfect synch with the pre-recorded film and dialogue. This eerie performance – part horror film, part exploration of the psychological ramifications of war worked particularly well in Lebanon, where for many viewers war has been a lived reality, rather than something that happened to their grandparents.
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