Sitting in the middle of Tahrir square in the sweltering summer heat isn’t exactly the most enjoyable way to spend an evening. But when you’re sitting on the grass of the AUC campus gardens, watching some quality comedy performances, suddenly everything becomes a little bit brighter.
The Howard Café named after the original “little black box of theater known as Howard, was conceived 10 years ago when a group of students came to the conclusion that a student body without an experimental student theater space was not worth its weight in gold. So, to add that extra shine to AUC, the Howard Café was born.
After an introduction by stage manager Hoda Baraka, the evening kicked off with a segment entitled “The story of Howard. Why exactly the Howard theater is called “Howard Theater probably isn’t a question that most AUCians ask themselves.
The Howard actors made a pretty good job of rocking up an explanation. In mime, Mariam Ali provided the voiceover while Hany Seif, Hani Eskander, Amna Shawkat, Yara Atef Goubran and Luke and Ramsi Lehner frolicked, ballet danced, gasped and gesticulated their way round the stage as they delved into the virtual historical AUC files.
When the performance finished, I was none the wiser as to why the Howard Theater bears the name it does, so bizarre was the trajectory of events.
I was, however, much amused, and gathered the naming had something to do with a man named Howard, his companion Sullivan, some creepy masked figures known as “The Pretenders and a mug, in which Howard is now safely ensconced.
Perhaps it was tranquility of the AUC gardens, maybe the narcotic evening breeze, or maybe it was the end of year relief that elicited a real rapport between actors and audience. But it was when Ramsi Lehner playing Howard tried to stick his head in a mug that I knew this was a performance that lacked the pretension known to plague much university theater.
The evening developed into a form of “Whose Line is it Anyway cum “Fast-Show cum university theater workshop. High points came without a doubt when the seven actors took their comedy cues in improvisation, the most rib-tickling being “The Travel Show.
Ali played a down-to-earth British traveler whose seven continents in seven days took the form of snapshots, which, in turn were formed by the actors; absurd physical configurations took some stretches of the imagination on her part.
The beauty of group standup is that it’s very much like a regular conversation: the strength of the response is only as strong as the strength of the question. When things began to get a bit too monotonous, innovation, as always, was the escape route to re-engaging the audience.
Lehner, in the Howard group, shone as the innovator, sticking up his t-shirt to become a pneumatic cameraman in the North Pole, and inducing hysterics in the audience.
If sketch comedy has had its day, the niche it can survive is through improvisation. Audiences are too involved, too aware of the comedy processes – the rehearsals, the scriptwriting – to be content with self-deception. Instead they want to see one, or both, of two things; either the performer being challenged to the max, or give a thoroughly faithful representation that their having a perfectly normal conversation with a mate.
The Howard actors rose to this challenge, though more vigorous rehearsals might have given rise to more innovative and thus comic scenes. Although the acting was professional, at times the ideas themselves, which in standup can’t be blamed on an absent scriptwriter, faltered. But that is another beauty of standup improv – the challenges of picking up a performance and creating new highs.
Still, it was quality enough to merit staying until the end of the long evening. And those who did were rewarded with two treats. George Azmy, one of Egypt’s rising standup stars, and the Mariam Ali and Abdel-Rahman Hussein duo.
Azmy, who has performed with comedy television fixtures Axis of Evil, launched into his native tongue, his theme being Egyptian transport.
It’s near nigh impossible not to raise a smile (or a tragic-com suicide) when discussing the virtues of Egypt’s buses and taxis, and Azmy didn’t fall short. Why is catching the bus an Olympic sport? How come the neon-lit taxi cab interiors feel like another world? Why do taxi drivers make the same finger-thumb movement when turning the steering wheel?
And to round off, what could be more perfect than the incredible voice of Ali? Listening to her is like skating on a smooth road while eating a bar of rich melting chocolate. It sounds a little messy, but her bassy tones were tempered and soulful. I’m not a big fan of female singers, but if this girl released an album, I’d beg, borrow and steal to get hold of it.
As the last pluck of the guitar was carried away by the evening breeze, it was no doubt a nostalgic farewell to the place that’s housed hundreds of students’ laughs for the past 10 years. But if this group of gifted alumni makes their mark on the comedy theater scene in future years, it’s sure that Howard’s spirit, safely ensconced in his mug, will live on.