Sadness and kitsch in a play about making ends meet

Eight actors sit on chairs facing one another, four along each wall.

It’s difficult to see how they will manage in such a small space. We sit watching them from backless plastic stools. But any doubts or discomfort are quickly cast aside.

The actors begin by squabbling. In a comical prelude — mostly a little argument between the actors about who will start — various props are indicated and explained: “When I wear these gloves I will be a dog,” says one actor. We are told that at certain points the actors will play the role of leaves or the breeze.

This bickering introduction sets the tone for the production: lyrical, profound and utterly hilarious. It’s a compelling, crafty piece of storytelling, in which actors slip into different roles, occasionally becoming narrator, surrounded by frequently used props, from hats hanging on pegs to fake branches.

The villa in Dokki where the play is staged has a squat-like feel. There is no stage in the room — just four walls, rugs, seats and props. Outside in the courtyard chairs are scattered about, in the back a ping-pong table, around the corner the toilet where your privacy’s protected by a hanging rug.

A short monologue opens the play itself, ending with the repeated words, “Man is in danger, humanity is in danger.” Then two interlocking stories follow, played alternately rather than consecutively, about how the poor in the “Third World” seek to make a living — and how humanity is endangered in such conditions.

The two stories are performed primarily on opposite sides of the room. The space can appear as two stages — on one side the actors freeze, sit, or become props for the other story, while the action continues opposite — or become one, as the center or full span is taken up. So it never appears too small.

In one story, a man struggling to provide for his growing family agrees to his wife’s suggestion to go see her well-connected cousin. He gets a job that pays in dollars, and is — unsurprisingly — determined to keep it.

His job is to find meat cheap enough for the company. Each suggestion is rejected as too expensive. Finally, desperate, he settles on rat meat. He goes to a doctor, a lawyer and an expert, asking each if there is a problem with eating rat meat. He is assured that it is absolutely fine for humans — from the Third World, that is. When it transpires that the meat is poisonous, he is scapegoated.

The other story also charts a man’s efforts to provide for his family in the face of diminished opportunities. Like the first protagonist, he’s a trained engineer. Yet after a long search all he can secure is a job replacing a factory guard dog who has just died.

He is fed dog food and sleeps in a tiny kennel. The first night is bitterly cold and windy, indicated to both comic and atmospheric effect by the huffing of other actors to imitate the whistling wind. His objections become fewer as they are met with stony rejection and he grudgingly accepts his new reality. One time, his employer shouts at him for speaking in human tongue. He forgets how to walk on two legs and starts barking rather than speaking.

His pregnant wife cries, fearful that she’ll not give birth to a human boy. He commiserates by kneeling on all fours to caress her leg with his face like a dog, barking plaintively. Later, another man bids him to rise up and raise his head high like a human being. Our poor man-dog bites his hand.

The stories mirror one another as the protagonists search for work, but depart as one finds a well-paying job doing things he finds morally objectionable, and the other settles for a guard dog job. The stories complement and speak to each other throughout.

“One man loses his honor and the other loses his dignity,” director and actor Hany al-Metennawy says.

Metennawy founded the troupe “Three” in 2006, bringing together three actors who had worked together at Hanager Arts Center (including on this same play in classical Arabic). The troupe has grown, now numbering around ten.

Translated by the late Iraqi Qasim Mohamed into classical Arabic in the early 2000s, the original was made up of three stories by prominent Argentine playwright Osvaldo Dragún (1929-1999). Mohamed transformed the stories into two.

Having performed Mohamed’s version several times, Metennawy translated it again into colloquial Arabic with Samia Jaheen, daughter of renowned colloquial poet, cartoonist and playwright Salah Jaheen. This move unsurprisingly sprung from a desire to make the work more accessible: The actors now speak a language that could actually be spoken by people living such situations.

The troupe seem to agree that something has been lost in the translation though, pointing to Mohamed’s melodic use of language. But what is lost in music is gained in intimacy. The performance flows differently, Metennawy suggests, as the actors can inhabit the words more easily with their bodies and gestures.

We are told that the stories could be taking place in the same alley, but all we know for sure is that their protagonists live in the Third World, in Africa, south of the valley. We hear this throughout (there’s something a little off about this, as Egyptians rarely refer to themselves as being in Africa or the Third World, but rather in the Arab world).

The original was also set in some unspecified Third World place. Metennawy suggests that the author was writing under a dictatorship, and this was a way to write about issues at home candidly.

The generality of the play — a poor man somewhere in Africa, south of a valley — is offset by lines of almost exaggerated specificity. A general meditation on knowledge, for instance, is interrupted by: “You won’t get a sniff of knowledge while you listen to Lamees al-Hadidi” — a popular talk show host who, typically for the mainstream Egyptian media, acts as a government cheerleader.

It is in this political context that the villa has come to be a space where plays are performed. It was used for years by the Education Ministry. Now, returned to the American University in Cairo professor who owns it, it’s hosting a very different kind of education.

The idea is to transform it into a place of cultural and social activity, and work has begun in earnest in the past couple of months. There are even plans to have a crèche for artists’ children while their parents work. For weeks, work teams have been cleaning, stripping walls, painting, and wiring. For “Three,” preparation for the show was not just about rehearsals but making the space usable.

There are plans to perform “Tales from around the Third World” at other venues, including the Jesuit Center. It is a play that is both funny and deeply sad.

“Humans are different from other animals,” the employer of the dog-like man jovially tells a colleague. “They can get used to any conditions.”

That the man responsible for turning a man into a dog says that this is proof of humanity’s uniqueness is a painful and comic irony.

We laugh a lot, but not at the characters. We are appalled not at them but their situations. It’s a laughter that does not minimize the pain of their suffering.

“You laugh not because it’s funny, but because you feel something, you recognize something,” actor Ibrahim Salah says.

The play’s quick rhythm prevents us from doing more than register what we might feel at a given moment; there isn’t time to sit with our sadness before a hilarious poignant moment comes along.

There’s a significant element of clowning in the acting: Clowns are effective in pointing at the tragic and ridiculous in our lives. There’s also exaggeration, slapstick and parody. The use of props borders on kitsch at times. An actor holds up a white circle on which “moon” is written, as someone on either side waves a branch from left to right.

The play weaves in big themes like class and geopolitics, masculinity and expectations, the grinding effects of poverty, questions of choice and responsibility — and does so with full seriousness and playfulness.

“Tales from around the Third World” will next be performed Monday 17 at 8.30 at Jesuit Center, Ramses.

Naira Antoun 

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