19th Experimental Theater festival continues to push boundaries

Joseph Fahim
8 Min Read

In a country where complex forms of cultural content are always marginalized, it is still astonishing how experimental theater – one of the most demanding of all arts – continues to be popular.

The 19th edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater, which kicked off last Friday, continues to explore the boundaries of theater and present the latest experimentations in drama from around the world.

The notion of experimental theater was founded at the beginning of the 20th century as a counter-movement to the classicism and (an artificial naturalism) of mainstream theater. It continued to dominate the cultural scene centuries ago.

The founding principles of experimental theater were simple: To present a message, set of emotions or ideas using any method, no matter how radical it may be. The untraditional physicality of a usually bare stage, creative use of lighting, various sound effects and intense, highly expressive body and facial movements accompanied occasionally by modern dance numbers and recurring audience participation are among the primary distinctive basics of this kind of theater.

According to Martha W. Coigney, head of the viewing committee, the festival single-handedly introduced experimental theater to the Arab world since its inception in 1988.

Although it s always difficult to judge experimental plays since the notion behind this theater is to experiment with confining dramatic structures; qualities of the performances shown thus far have drastically varied with many veering towards the abstract and hollow formalism embedded in deep darkness.

Amongst the best performances shown so far is the Syrian play Chocolat. The play revolves around six young people who gather at a fashion exhibition hall one of them owns after a New Year’s celebrations. Each one takes the stage to chronicle his personal predicaments, joys, qualms and contradictory feelings about relationships, self-discovery, and work expectations via reflective monologues.

The multiple characters give the performance a rare dynamism and a space to present numerous perspectives about unrelated topics. Combining the traditional Syrian dances of Dabke and other folk ones with modern dance numbers, Chocolat is one of the most direct, entertaining and stirring plays shown this year. The ending, where the series of confessions are revealed to be rehearsals for a play, uncovers the thin invisible line between art (and perhaps lies) and the real world.

An equally remarkable – albeit more challenging and difficult – work is the Moroccan Rocking Chair.

Based on the great American absurd playwright Samuel Beckett 1981 s Rockaby, the play is a one-woman show about a dying lady awaiting her death. The bare stage features solely the woman, dressed in an evening gown, sitting on her rocking chair in front of a large screen that reflects her solemn face.

Through a long, harrowing monologue, the woman confesses her regrets, fears and confusion. Slipping from her inner torment and jumbled meanderings to the unknown meta-existential worlds, the lady continually attempts to defy death. Her incomprehensible words reflect the impotency of language at a time when meaning is hard to attain.

Rocking Chair is a play about emotional vacuum, failing spirituality and the impotency of human reality personified through one of the most gripping female performance of the festival.

The most impressive, and perhaps relevant, performance of last week is England s The Hamlet Machine. The play revolves around a submissive clerk trapped in an elevator. The clerk s meaningless existence, anxieties and overpowering sense that he s leading a wasted life are set against a series of lurid fantasies that display his yearn for any kind of meaning and identity.

With several references to historical figures, the clerk feel lost in the grand machine of the past. Ultimately, he recognizes that he s only a shadow of the many social, historical and political contrasts; a measly, ordinary figure created by large machinery that s hard to resist.

An interesting concept let down by shabby execution is Germany s Robinson & Crusoe. Based on Daniel Defoe s famous 1719 book Robinson Crusoe; the play centers on two men, of different nationalities and backgrounds, stranded in an island following a plane crash.

Unable to speak a common language, the two men learn to communicate using signs. It s fascinating to watch the two expressing emotions and thoughts in an identical manner. Despite their initial differences; their struggles, needs, and basic drive to survive are identical. But Crusoe suggests that all men, at their core, are no different from each other. It s the social, cultural, subjective beliefs and selfishness that forces men to reject the disparity of others. The play drags in many parts though and the lack of engaging dramatic situations left most audience members slightly cold.

Jordan s The Mask, on the other hand, is big ideas with no context. The Mask discusses women s oppression in the Arab world through nine short theatrical tableaux that trace how history has defamed the image of women, beginning from the Adam and Eve story, the patriarchal institution s success in trivializing women and gradual transformation of women into sex objects and commodities exploited by modern media.

The last aforementioned point is the most acute and pertinent angle of the play, which doesn t shy away from acknowledging the efforts of several men who struggled for women s causes. It also admits that females themselves have become agents of oppression working against each other.

The nonstop bombardments of words rendered as a long inarticulate essay undermines the ideas and philosophical position of its director.

Tunisia s A Non-identical Copy is possibly the most polarizing performance of last week. Director Atef Bin Hussein takes a leaf from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to construct a nightmarish vision of matrimony.

Copy doesn t comprise any storylines; it s a collection of random moments of extreme agitation between a husband, his wife and two demons that may, or may not, influence the actions and behavior of the pair.

The four actors are surrounded by emptiness: the external material one and their own. The pair play tricks on each other, control the course of their lives and allow themselves to be controlled. They march into endless mazes that seem to be a given in any relationship. They re unable to endure the company of one another yet they remain unwilling to disintegrate their bond.

The Mask is a thought-provoking play with notable performances and imposing lighting. The overriding void the play is set in rubs on the audiences that are left wandering puzzlingly in an infinite circle with no end in sight.

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