Oct 042012

When I first heard that Ambassador Theater was mounting Egyptian plays my mind immediately began swimming with imagery: the stereotypical pyramids, but also palms, gold, perfume, mud-brick, mummification, and the hard-beating sun. Egypt is a place and a culture which I have only ever read about – never visited or studied in depth – and that got me terribly excited. What would a play about or set in Egypt be like? What time period were the one-acts from? How much of what I already knew would I find in the text, in the story, in the characters?
Other than a passing familiarity with Egypt’s ancient and classical history, I was ignorant.  I had vague notions of several wars between Israel and Egypt (not to mention the rest of the Arab world), and that the conflict was cooled, but not resolved, by a peace treaty.
This look back into my previous understanding of Egypt has revealed to me a host of prejudices I didn’t realize I had. I thought (still think?) that Egypt is a great mystery, that its culture and its heritage since antiquity have been held hostage by religiosity and superstition. Come to find out through the process of working on these two plays, that understanding was simplistic, and failed to tell the whole story.
The most relevant swath of history to Farag as a playwright was much more recent: 1917 onwards – from the time of the Balfour Declaration to the present. At the Treaty of Versailles, European powers, led by Britain and France sliced up the Middle East without much respect to ethnicity or religious homogeneity. In some cases (think: Kurds) international borders were drawn specifically to divide and suppress certain groups.
The strongmen-led, divided Middle East of 1919-WW2 had a profound impact on one of Farag’s political heroes: Gamal Abdel Nasser. Once in power (~1952 until his death in 1967), Nasser presided over a socializing of Egypt: with a march toward a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, a reliance on Arab nationalism as a political force, the refocus of Islam into the religious (and not necessarily political) sphere, and an anti-colonial hostility toward the West.
The 1960s were Farag’s most prolific period of writing, when his plays were consistently produced. Beyond his own success, Farag considered the decade a ‘golden era’ of theater. He and his contemporaries actively resisted the idea that Arab writers were incapable of producing ‘proper’ theater, like Western Tragedy. Together, they sought to define a new, quintessential Arab national drama; they expanded folk tales, experimented with form and style, and produced plays in large annual festivals. Theater’s variety and scope tanked with Nasser’s death, and the end of the 60s.
The Visitor (1971) and the Peephole (1977) came later, from a period of great disappointment and ennui. With both plays, Farag tried to correct society’s faults, rather than lift it to greater heights. Materialism and the middle class’s willful blindness to social problems became his focus.
So far the process has been illuminating, frustrating, and rewarding. Getting into the mindset of each character, finding their motivations, priorities, hang-ups, and points of pride is a high-energy task – each and every rehearsal.
As with the whole cast and crew, I am very excited that our opening night is coming up soon. Get ready for a suspenseful, challenging, and confusing evening of theater; come be an accomplice!

  3 Responses to “Stepping into Egypt…”

Comments (3)
  1. What really surprised me about the plays, was how universal they are. It didn’t feel as though we are learning about a different culture (although we were). I personally have never been to Egypt, yet didn’t expect the plays to be so relative to our own lives and experiences. Granted, we do not live in a third world country, our class system is not as pronounced as the class system in Egypt. Yet, the human condition, i.e. searching for belonging, acceptance, social status, tolerance, etc. are the same as our own. I must admit that I did expect this to be different. Perhaps not for a recently written play, but definitely for plays that were written decades ago! We have put a lot of work into this, and have made huge sacrifices to let Alfred Farag’s voice be heard. It is exciting to see how the audience gets into these plays, how they laugh with the characters, and share the emotional roller-coaster during the performance. I think that is the most important thing, to share the experiences with the audience, and if the audience gets even just a slight glimpse on how Egyptians aren’t that much different from ourselves, we have done our job well. It’s a joy to be playing alongside such a talented cast. I hope that lots of people will come and share the experiences Alfred Farag so eloquently orchestrated for us.

  2. The Journey has been an interesting one. The plays are certainly not what I expected from an Egyptian playwright. I suppose my expectation had been much like James’, but have to say that the actual scripts pleasantly surprised me.
    Now that the show is open, and we have played in front of audiences, it is interesting to see what the responses are. First off, it is important to mention that “the visitor” was written around 1971, and “the peephole” around 1977. Stylistically the plays are very different. As a performer, I feel more contained and restrained (physically) in “the visitor”, than I do in “the peephole”. That is not to say that I like one play better than the other, quite the contrary, I like them both equally well. However “the visitor” in it’s style of performance is closer to what is favored so much in America, psychological realism, although it isn’t like Ibsen, Chekhov, etc. “the peephole” on the other hand has a more absurd feeling to it, with a touch of melodrama, and psychological realism as well. One critic said it very well: “as the play went on, it was tough to tell if it was a thriller, a comedy, a philosophical treatise, or a farce…”. That is exactly true, as an actor it has been hard to put a label on either of the plays…I basically had to reconcile to not put a label on it, but play what is written in the text. Due to this problem, I believe that the critiques have come out quite mixed. One can also tell which critics favor psychological realism over absurdism, etc. by reading the reviews. My only hope is that people will come to the shows, and forget for the couple of hours about their daily grind. Get into the stories, and have an entertaining evening. It’s been a tough ride, but now I am really enjoying myself. Hope you can make it to the shows, the playwright is virtually unknown in America, and what he has to say does speak to us as well. Would be a shame to let the opportunity of a new experience pass.

  3. When you think of Egypt, you think about pyramids, ancient stories of Pharaos, then Cleopatra, etc and then you think of the current times and all the political changes that you hear on news, but when you look deeper and start reading more and talking to people who live there, the picture changes. When I first got the book about Alfred Farag written by Dina Amin, my view has changed drastically. I started talking to Dina over the internet, read the plays several times with the collegue actors and the director, and dear friend, Gail Humphries Mardirosian, we started discovering more and more and more. I saw a lot of similiarities what Egyptian people has gone through and still going through. The human conditions, desires are still the same. The psychological and spiritual experiences have lot of things in common, does not matter how far we are geographically or culturally and historically. The plays are so universal and there is still so much in them to discover about ourseleves and the world. I am so glad that we got into that Egyptian adventure with the author that was not recognized by me before. It’s been such a pleasure to work with so wonderful and creative friends. Now it is time for the audience to join us and discover even more.

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