For six days last week, a pick of some of the best independent theater and dance performances were chosen to compete in the sixth Festival of Young Creators, organized by the French Cultural Center in Egypt.
The six performances were chosen from more than 60 shows that applied to participate in the festival, which was staged at the council’s theater in Mounira. Revered actor Tawfiq Abdel Hamid headed a jury comprised of theater director Khaled Galal and choreographer Karima Mansour.
Five of the participating performances were Egyptian while just one was French. Nearly all these shows have been staged before in different venues last year and some of them have already managed to scoop a number of awards.
The Festival of Young Creators has rapidly become a significant outlet for these small, modest productions to gain momentum and get the exposure they need. Each year, the top winners are staged in other outlets across the country.
Yet the majority of this year’s performances were a disappointment, kicking off the independent theater activities of 2008 with a lukewarm, unpromising start.
The event kicked off with “Kalam fi Serry (Thoughts in My Mind). Riham Abdel Razek’s audacious performance nabbed the award for best ensemble performance at last year’s Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater as well as best direction from the Festival of Female Arab Directors.
“Thoughts is essentially a mixture of long intertwining monologues and random dialogues between three young women who unveil the unspoken thoughts and buried emotions of Egyptian women.
The oppression of women, the tyranny of men and the transformation of women into mere sex objects have been the foundation of many plays and films produced in the Arab world for more than a decade now. On paper, “Thoughts might seem more of the same genre, but, thankfully, it wasn’t.What distinguishes this performance from the rest is its sincerity and frankness. The three main characters don’t assume the habitual roles of victims. Their problems and frustrations are presented as a product of acute social change and futile traditions the women adopt blindly without challenging or questioning them.
The three fight and bicker over men, reflecting the assumption among millions of Egyptian women that their salvation, freedom and happiness lie with their prince charming. They discuss the hijab (veil), their parents’ imposing dogmas as well as the double standards and hypocrisy of the values society rigidly adopts. Abdel Razek also takes a few stabs at the taboo subjects of religion and politics. At different intervals of the show, the girls discreetly discuss sex and even masturbation.
“Kalam fi Serry is raw, intense and honest, qualities none of the other Egyptian performances came close to achieving.
It was all downhill from day two though with “Les Misérables, proud winner of the most abysmal performance of this year’s festival.
The play is a straightforward, bland adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece, but with absolutely nothing new to say. Everything about the play, from the laughable costumes to the uninspired employment of Vangelis’ score of “1492: Conquest of Paradise, and even the overdramatic lighting is totally off-spot.
Performances range from average to utterly bad. Soheil Rasmy, in particular, managed to eradicate his Inspector Javert of complexities and depth. A scene that sees him running in slow motion after Mohamed Shams El Din’s Jean Valjean and screaming in a fading voice “Faljaaaan is, hands down, the most hilarious moment of the entire festival.
The main problem with “Les Misérables is its shallowness. Director Ibrahim Abdel Salam believed he could squeeze a 1,200-page novel into a play of less than one hour. He failed.
Yasser Nabil’s short dance performance “The Paper was probably the most ambitious among the Egyptian offerings. The show is set on a stage covered with a large pile of discarded papers that appears to devour the dancers reclining jadedly on the floor.
As the news items begin to come alive through symbolic scenes of rape, a motionless football game and suicide, the dancers attempt to break free from the overpowering violence, wretchedness and hatred of the external world through a series of movements that prominently feature hip-hop and break dancing.
“The Paper started on a strong note, but quickly lost steam. The themes and ideas were overshadowed by the incoherence of the entire production and lack of solid dramatic peaks.
“La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) was the second literary adaptation presented at the festival. “Alba is a faithful adaptation of Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca’s last play. It tells the story of a domineering widow who forces her five daughters to endure an eight-year period of mourning in her Andalusian house.
The figure of Alba foreshadowed Franco’s fascist regime that swept Spain a few weeks after Lorca completed his play. Yet director/actress Youssra El Sharkawy failed to capture the monstrosity and totalitarianism of the titular character, thus depriving the play of its principal source of dramatic antagonism. El Sharkawy is never convincing. In fact, at one point, I wondered why the daughters can’t just leave since Alba doesn’t seem to be as unreservedly cruel as the other characters claim.
The play’s original themes of conformity and the dire consequences of repression are explored in abundance in this adaptation, and the ideas resonate strongly with the present Egyptian reality. But the whole affair lacks a distinctive vision to leave a penetrating impression; and the patchiness of this version ultimately renders it another wasted endeavor. And, for some unknown reason, the sexual tension the original text prominently features is non-existent in El Sharkawy’s adaptation.
Along with “Thoughts In My Mind, the other impressive performance the festival showcased is France’s highly original “Almost a Comma.
An absurd piece about illusion, the search for a higher meaning and the disappointment in life, Brenda Segone’s play is also a fascinating examination of language and the world of words.
The play centers on a young woman who discovers one day that she’s a comma inside a poet’s latest work. The young woman is dissatisfied with her position. The poet tries to convince her of her importance, but she decides to go to a surgeon to have her converted into a full stop.
On the journey to the surgeon’s office, she encounters a number of letters, each with its own story.
The ending of the play, without spoiling it, is ironic and stimulating. The strength of Segone’s work lies in how she never takes her characters and story too seriously. The plays flow smoothly, backed by an amusing, sophisticated dialogue. The set, despite its simplicity, is jubilant and chic.
The serious topics embedded in the play are never overstressed or forced on the audience. On the contrary, Segone leaves room for the viewers to reflect and ponder the overall implications of her story.
The small triumph of the entertaining and intelligent “Comma reveals the fundamental drawbacks of the participating Egyptian plays: Their limited scope, which usually revolves around a number of tired topics treated in the same direct, flat approach.
Apart from “Thoughts In My Mind, there was nothing exciting or remotely adventurous about the Egyptian offerings, which, at best, were an ambitious exercise in mediocrity.