The most prominent feature on the Metro al-Madina stage this evening is a low wall, downstage. The five black-clad musicians arrayed behind the obstacle were only gradually illuminated and mostly remain in the shadows throughout.
Rising from behind the wall, Maryam Saleh has donned an exaggerated-looking black top hat – the sort of thing an animated character from a Tim Burton film might wear.
Resplendent in black-and-white clown face, the vocalist begins a tune that most audience members recognize as “Kiko,” a chirpy little tune about a pet bird by Egyptian musical giant Sayed Darwish (1892-1923).
There’s nothing at all chirpy in the way Saleh warbles through these lyrics, however. Her attitude and tone are more abject, matching the turned-down mouth of her clown makeup.
The incongruity is accentuated by Saleh’s percussionist, Ahmad Al Khateeb, also in black-and-white clown face. During Saleh’s refrains, he holds up a birdcage – containing a stuffed bird – and leers at the audience maniacally.
The wall, which doubles as a projection screen for the duration of “Masrah Sayed Darwish” (Sayed Darwish Theatre), completes the effect.
Presently the projection (created by Nadim Saouma) is that of a gilded cage, enclosing the performers just as the cage does an effigy of a bird. During the show’s opening tune, Darwish’s “The Devil’s Song,” the screen reflected an animated video of three vaguely human rod puppets. Below them, monstrous mouths rose and fell, opening and closing.
The projection that accompanies a good portion of the evening’s entertainment features a series of necktie-wearing animated figures – all decapitated – either impaled or hanging from garrotes.
Devised and directed by Metro co-founder Hisham Jaber – the imagination behind shows like “Hishik Bishik” and “Bar Farouq” – “Masrah Sayed Darwish” is a bizarrely imaginative yet ultimately sweet-natured evening of cabaret-style entertainment.
As tends to be the case with the Metro’s productions, the musicianship of the variously demented-looking clown ensemble – pianist Marc Ernest, bassist Bashar Farran, Khateeb, Imad Hashisho on oud and Souheil Zeitouny on nay – is top notch.
The centerpiece of the show is Saleh. Aside from her familiarity with Darwish’s repertoire, the Egyptian-born singer-songwriter has a uniquely variable vocal style and stage presence.
Lebanese audiences may be most familiar with Saleh’s work with Beirut underground doyen Zeid Hamdan, with whom she recorded her “Esla7at,” a pop tune that bristles with attitude.
The driving conceit of “Masrah” is the darkly theatrical treatment Saleh and her collaborators bring to Darwish’s work. Called the father of Egyptian pop music, the composer’s lyrics reflected the difficulties of common people’s lives, while his sunny, toe-tapping tunes resonate through the region to this day.
“Sayed Darwish’s songs are like manifesto for our country and I think for Arab region too,” Saleh wrote in an email interview, “because his subject was very deep and comes from the heart of the political situation and all types of citizens.
“He composed songs for each kind of work and worker in Egypt and [the Arab world], so he’s like an icon for Arabic music so he live with us always.”
Innumerable performers have covered Darwish’s songbook over the decades, challenging contemporary artists to breathe new life into them. Grounded in the composer’s lyrics, “Masrah” makes no explicit reference to Egypt’s recent history, yet it’s hard not to read the ironic incongruities of this staging as a reflection of that history.
Saleh notes that Darwish’s work remains relevant to contemporary audiences, but she credits Jaber with programming a playlist of songs whose themes and lyrics resonate in the 21st-century Arab consciousness.
Saleh’s been performing since she was a little girl and she says it was while doing street theater with her father at the age of nine that she started wearing clown face. She says Jaber suggested this show’s unhappy clown motif.
“Always I see myself as a clown in my artistic ... and personal life and I love this character,” she wrote. “It’s very near to me and my soul.
Saleh’s clownish persona is front and center during this show. Appearing and disappearing behind the onstage wall-screen after each tune, she could be the host of a demented afternoon children’s program.
When she ducks out of sight at the end of “Kiko,” her briefly reappear, holding a sign designed to resemble a cartoon thought balloon – the first of several bits of interrogative signage she uses to jokingly gauge the mood.
“Mabsoutin?” the sign asks – everyone happy?
The audience roars its reassurance.
“Masrah Sayed Darwish,” with Maryam Saleh, will next be staged at Metro al-Madina on July 19. Doors open at 9.pm.
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