Syrian play Chocolat nabbed the top Best Performance award to mark an end to the 19th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater in an edition that featured a patchy collection of performances that varied significantly in value and artistic merit.
Chocolat – a chronicle of the joys, qualms and contradictions of a group of young people gathering at New Year s Eve – was among the few Arabic performances with a distinctive personality and original themes. In fact, conventionality and lack of innovative vision were the main reasons behind the tedious state characterizing several performances of the second week of the festival.
Tunisia s The Love of My Homeland continued the salvo of Arabic plays about the marginalization and maltreatment of women in the Arab world. The one-woman show is a monologue of a lady troubled by social, economic and political issues of her home country.
More than similar performances, the focus of Homeland is the broad quandaries of a particular nation laid out from the personal perspective of an ordinary woman. A large portion of the show sees said woman lamenting about Iraq and the reaction of Arabs regarding the American invasion. At 80-minutes, the play is one long blabbering without any drama or anything new to discuss. Halfway through Homeland, any distant light of interest or significance had already diminished.
The Greek adaptation of Nikolai Gogol s short story Diary of a Madman suffered from the same tired approach. The story charts the gradually digression of a low-ranking civil servant in a 19th century repressive Russia into insanity. The story, told in the form of a spoken diary, projects his mental decline as he imagines his pet dogs engaging in an affair and ultimately believes himself to be the heir to the throne of Spain.
The play tells Gogol’s story straight via another extended monologue filled with ambiguous details, lacking any actions. The director of the play turns one of the Russian novelists most famous and engaging stories into a dull, monotonous affair.
The Egyptian participation this year was mixed. Walid Ouni s lauded If These Clouds Could Talk has already premiered at the last Dance Theater Festival and its presence in the experimental festival remains questionable.
Thoughts in My Mind, winner of the Best Ensemble prize, overcame its basic standard theme to unfold into a solid, coherent and winning work.
Thoughts is another performance to portray struggles of women in a rigid, unsympathetic and hypocritical patriarchal society. The performance is embedded with subtleties emerging like deep, unsettled wounds in search of a cure. The harmony and astute direction of the play elevates it beyond the entire Arabic canon of the same subject.
The Fate, on the other hand, is hands down the worst performance most audiences were lucky to miss this year. A last entry for Egypt in the festival, the performance is essentially a random pool of poorly choreographed and tasteless dances with no connecting thread. Dressed in tacky, cheap green outfits, the young dancers trip purposelessly on each other for 40 minutes amid laughable lighting effects and an assortment of musical tunes worthy of low-budget soap operas.
On the other hand, two performances from Mexico and Serbia epitomized the true essence of experimental theater and the unique art it could create.
The first is To Conquer the Sensei; the most challengingly radical play of this edition. Sensei recounts the attempts of a combat student to outdo his sadistic master whose brutal, unorthodox teaching methods have created a monster out of him.
Several sequences of the play are quite brutal, with shocking amounts of blood splattered occasionally on the stage. At one point, the master and his student invite an audience member on the fighting ring-like stage to act as a referee between the two. A woman, dressed as a geisha, functions as the comic relief that acts as a temporary sedative for a tense and alarming performance.
This amalgam of audience participation, conflicting emotions and an unrelenting desire to shock and defy pre-held expectations result in a play that breaks all rules and carries the notion of experimentation into untreated territory.
The second is Bread and Plays, winner of the best scenography award. Bread is a non-verbal performance set in a photography studio somewhere in Europe. As the performers glide from one meticulously beautiful frame to another, only a loaf of bread they all seem to be fighting for connects them.
There s no concrete or logical premise outlining Bread. Instead, the performance feels like a series of dream sequences of disappearing worlds. The performers slow-motion movements is perfectly synchronized with a chilling score that takes the audiences to unfamiliar landscapes while the set looks like a grand painting of dangerous beauty.
The loaf of bread could be a metaphor for man s materialistic needs and the entire performance is a glimpse of the midpoint between an imaginary world man refuses to abandon and the real one. Above all, Bread is an impressive, captivating kaleidoscope of beauty in motion.
Chocolat was a deserving winner of the grand prize of the festival. Nevertheless, one play managed to overshadow nearly every other performance this year, including the Syrian champion.
The South Korean Seoul Factory for the Performing Arts rendition of the Greek tragedy Medea entitled Medea and its Double, was easily the most astounding performance. Based on Euripides s classic play, Medea is a passionate woman who sacrifices her nation and kills her brother for the love of the Greek warrior Jason.
When Jason, intoxicated by power and lust, decides to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon; Medea showers her vengeance on Jason by murdering Gauce, King Creon and her own two children.
Medea is played by two actresses: One representing the vengeful, enraged lover while the other is the tender mother about to lose her children. The duality of Medea has never played with such a tactic that vividly exhibits all the ache, sorrow, rage, fear and love colliding violently inside this woman s heart.
Their performances are piercing and ferocious. The incredible Korean set evokes the gothic ambiance of the classic Japanese Noh Theater while the haunting, mournful score immerses the audiences inside the core of the story.
Director Hyoung-Taek Limb brilliantly succeeds in rendering the Korean culture to be a perfectly fitting home for the Greek tragedy. There s a sense of grandiosity and flair trailing every chapter of the play.
The raw emotions channeled in a chain of visually dazzling and original scenery redefine the potential of experimental theater; the endless possibilities art and drama could be shaped into. The sheer power of an inventive theater director’s singular vision could transcend any barriers the oldest form of entertainment has been chained to.