Despite how cliché and naïve it may sound, the old saying that Egypt is the mother of the world is not entirely farfetched. After all, much of sciences and arts are rooted in Ancient Egypt’s discoveries, inventions, and teachings. Theater director Nada Sabet doesn’t believe so, and in her latest play “Om El Donya (The Mother of the World) – staged at Rawabet Theater for three consecutive sold-out performances earlier this week – she presents her argument.
The three-months-long rehearsal period for the performance was mainly based on improvisation. Sabet’s play centered on three particular dimensions: a group of five characters (the Street Kid, the Coptic Girl, the Old Lady, the Fresh Graduate, and the Confused Youth), the theme of immigration, and the fusion between movement and video; allowing the story to flow in a more visual than textual fashion.
Sabet, an American University in Cairo graduate, met up with each one of her five actors (Ahmed Hussein, Akram Abdel Aziz, Mariam Ali, Mariam Khosht, and Mina Reda El Nagar) individually to discuss all possible character developments. She then made her actors interact with one another without possessing previous knowledge of the other actors’ characters. The process went from character development to constructing a storyline.
Each of the five characters has a different reason to emigrate; but the one thing they share is their loneliness. The audience is thus obliged to fill in the gaps and read between the lines, inferring what is not being said.
The acting was outstanding, with each of the performers bringing in something personal to their characters resulting in a quasi-naturalistic performance.
Among the most notable performers were Mariam Ali in the role of a 60-year-old aristocratic Jewish lady who later converts to Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Youmna Radwan, who played a Coptic girl who likes knitting.
However, it was Mina El-Nagar, in the role of a struck-down junkie mechanic, who stood out above the rest, effortlessly gaining the sympathy of the audience. The high point of his performance was the confessional, forthright monologue through which he chronicles how his girlfriend left him for someone else and got pregnant.
El-Naggar’s character is perhaps the most distinctive personality of the play, since he’s the only one who seems involuntarily stuck in his home-country as opposed to the rest of the characters who loiter endlessly in front of an unidentifiable embassy.
The technical aspects of the production was fairly engaging. A group of videos were projected on a black net in front of the actors, separating the audience from the cast like a barrier or a barricade usually found in front of embassies. The quirkiest one was a stop motion segment by Amire Mehrez reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s work with the Monty Python. Alas, not all videos were clearly visible.
The soundtrack by Ramzi Lehner, composed of simple oriental piano melodies filtered with distracting effects and back-dropped by occasional acoustic drum loops, fit perfectly with the main theme of disconnection and emphasized it with the aid of fragmented light cues.
One of the most memorable scenes that made perfect use of sound and movement saw the Coptic Girl on stage twirling on a cube as she talks over three different telephones, with a ring tone celebrating the chaos and speed of modern life juxtaposed in the background. The girl eventually gets spiraled and caged by the telephone cables, rendering technology a monstrous vortex, impossible to elude.
The choreography was the only element that seemed out of place. The oddly western score commented on the action like a foreigner commenting on a group of aspiring Egyptian immigrants.
The final message “Om El Donya seems to suggest that the West can’t be the solution to all our problems; that we have to trace and face our issues first then deal with them. Escaping is not the answer.
Sabet’s directorial approach was more experimental than classical and despite its earnestness, the performance lacked depth. Perhaps the most prominent defect of the improvised performance is that it didn’t honestly feel as improvised as it should be. Some of the desired freshness was lost along the way.