Alexandria is no longer a cosmopolitan city, Mahmoud Aboudoma, director of the Creative Forum for Independent Theater Groups said, “Yet people from around the world still love to come. The city, after all, still possesses this mysterious charm.
For the past week, Alexandria was transformed back into the cosmopolitan capital of the Middle East as playwrights, actors and artists from 26 countries flocked to the fifth annual forum held at Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
With a budget of LE 320,000 – up from LE 260,000 last year – drawn from the Bibliotheca’s own budget, the forum is still the biggest independent cultural event in Egypt.
“The Bibliotheca is an international independent institution, Aboudoma said.
“We don’t expect the Ministry of Culture to provide us with any contributions or financial support. They’re out of our calculations because, honestly, we already know their answer.
Due to the limited budget, the Bibliotheca provides participating theatrical groups only with accommodation. It doesn’t supply them with flight tickets or any fees for their performances. “If you add in these extra expenses, the actual cost of the Bibliotheca would amount to more than LE 4 million.
“We still have a problem with the standard of participating shows. We are yet to present a real great theatrical performance . because those ‘great’ performances cost an average of ?15,000 to bring to Alexandria.
Indeed, the artistic quality of the performances staged last week was quite good, but nothing revelatory according to both the audiences and members of participating groups. Still, none of them lacked ambition or audacity of experimentation.
Among the highlights of the last few days is Finland’s “Death of a Scarecrow, an hour-long performance that belongs to the Physical Theater.
Essentially a series of silent repertoires that combine miming, clowning and pantomime, “Scarecrow started off strong with a hilarious segment entitled “Shipwreck but somehow lost steam with the darker parts like “Prison.
The lighter parts that also include “Bathtub and “At the Dentist were highly original and truly entertaining.
The most divisive and fascinating performance of the forum so far is, hands down, “De-Forma from Germany and Austria. “De-Forma is a performance installation that left every single audience member in utter bewilderment.
The audiences were guided into a dark theater containing two large objects wrapped in metallic wires offstage and another one hidden in the far left corner of the stage. The audiences, including myself, assumed the much-delayed performance would be carried out offstage and, therefore, climbed on stage, waiting for something to happen.
About 15 minutes later, the audience members began to explore the theater in frustration when they realized that the objects draped in those wires are, in fact, humans.
Some tried to interact with the still human objects, others continued to sit on stage in sheer boredom. The real action was taking place at that forgotten corner of the stage as the persistent audience members slowly began to take the large wires off the performers. By the end of the show, the roles were reversed as the performers covered audience members with the same metallic objects.
“I wasn’t sure how should I react, or if I should react at all, said Gregory Holt, one of the “De-Forma performers.
“The show taps into people’s curiosity, their need to find an explanation for everything they see, said Nora Elberfeld, who accidentally cut her hand near the end of the performance. “I guess the show is also about the nature of objects, the different ways through which they evolve and decompose.
But, ultimately, it can be anything to anyone depending on the way they see it.
This year, the forum is presenting 16 theatrical performances in addition to numerous workshops, seminars and discussions. New activities include special performances for lower-middle class children from Cairo, Alexandria and Minya. A training program for theater teachers from local schools will also be provided in an attempt to revive school theater in Egypt.
The most significant new addition this year is the translation program. Six plays from young playwrights from Austria, Poland, Slovenia, Scotland, Tunisia and the Netherlands have been published in one volume that contains both the original and translated text.
Among the translated works is “Everybody’s Baby from Scottish award-nominated actress/playwright Yvonne Caddell. Set in a dystopian, Mad Max-like parallel universe, “Baby is a love story between a soldier and a woman expected to fulfill a certain prophecy.
“The story is basically about a man and a woman in a room trying to connect, Caddell said. “I wanted to create a story set in an epic scale.
Theater, in its simplest form, is two people, a place and a passion. The future setting sort of opens it up and that was refreshing for me.
“Bissat Ahmadi from Tunisian playwright Hakim Marzougui received the largest amount of attention for both the published text and the witty, albeit dark, theatrical performance.
“Bissat, a smart, sharp black comedy, revolves around a French Muslim convert who befriends liberal Syrian carpet merchant. The Frenchman Julian is intoxicated by the East’s exoticism and the culture it represents more than the actual Islamic religion. Gradually, he becomes a fanatic, refers to the west as el-kofar (sinners) and decides to carry out a suicide attack against a group of tourists.
“Yaakoub (the carpet merchant) is a symbol of secular Islam, the kind of Islam that’s unfortunately disappearing from the Arab world, Marzougui said. “The extreme form of Islam was never inbred in our societies. Frankly speaking, it’s the product of the Gulf societies that popularized the Wahabism and exported it our countries through immigrant workers.
Marzougui doesn’t take sides in his play. His characters are far from the clichéd personas saturating mainstream art. Julian, despite his extremism, is occasionally presented as a sympathetic character defeated by his psychological complexities and Marzougui champions the idea Yaakoub represents. In the last act of the play, Julian tells a helpless Yaakoub that good Muslims should not hesitate in sacrificing their lives for God. “Why do we have to die for God, Yaakoub says. “Why can’t we live for God?
Marzougui believes that the current state of Tunisian theater – which mainly discuss topics related to emancipation of Arab women and male tyranny – is simply the direct result of Tunisian artists’ compliance to foreign audiences who are mainly interested in these topics.
Rosemarie Polarkov’s cynical, existential chamber drama “Kitchen Lying is, arguably, the most intriguing play of the translated works. “Kitchen follows two men and a woman in their late 20s who virtually do nothing all day except chatting in their small Berlin apartment.
They don’t have any aspirations, and they’re trapped by their fears from embracing and exploring the possibilities of life. “Kitchen is a vivid portrait of the hollowness of modern life and a parody of futile idealism.
The pessimistic tone of the play is a reflection of the author’s own personality. “I don’t believe that theater or plays have the power to heal or change lives, the 31-year-old Polarkov said. “In fact, I don’t actually like theater that much. Writing a play was just a new experiment for me.
Polarkov is a published novelist whose last book was both a critical and commercial success. “After the disastrous reaction that met my first book, I thought I’d be really happy with the way my second novel was received.
But I wasn’t really. It all didn’t matter at the end.
Her search for the notion of happiness continues with her next play. “It’s based on a true story about this famous ski jumper who basically won every award out there in the 80s but is now a drunk, wheelchair bounded old man, she said. “It’s not just a play about success and failure; I wanted to show how this old man, despite the fact that he lost everything, is happy.
hat true happiness, perhaps, can be found in the most unexpected places.
-The Fifth Creative Forum for Independent Theater Groups ends Sunday, Feb. 10.