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Up the garden path
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 03 - 2006

Nehad Selaiha is transported to Central Park in at the Falaki Studio Theatre
I was diligently following the programme of the second festival of the United Drama groups for Christian theatre at the Catholic Cultural Centre (which should have been my topic this week) when a message from novelist Somaya Ramadan announcing a show called at the Falaki Centre threw me off course. I did not recognise the title and it struck me as a bit odd since Americans always refer to autumn as 'the fall' (of whom? from what? -- I could never discover). Though I love both the city and season of the year the title sports, my first impulse was to let it go. After all, how much theatre can one cram, let alone digest, in a week?
The mention of Leila Saad, however, casually thrown in, proved an irresistible bait. I had heard about her plenty back in the 1970s as a highly promising, budding director before she suddenly decided to leave for the States; and though I had met her only once, more than thirty years ago, that meeting has left an indelible impression. In an article entitled "In Search of Nagui George", written after the death of that brilliant and much neglected playwright to whom Leila was briefly married (it was published on this page in the issue of 15-21 July 2004), I recorded my memory of that brief encounter. It went as follows: "I had an appointment to meet Samir El-Asfouri, the director of El-Tali'a theatre then, and as I walked into the foyer I saw this magnificent presence -- an enchantingly beautiful, tall, blue-eyed woman in slacks and a T shirt engaged in a rowdy, high-pitched conversation with stage hands. We didn't even exchange a word of greeting, but she still haunts my memory as a wonderful vision. She was assisting El-Asfouri then, as he told me upstairs in his office, and had married Nagui a year earlier [in 1974]. A year later [1976], she would be directing Nagui George's Inni A'tared (Objection) at his theatre-café in Ataba square. In 1977 they divorced and Leila departed for the States for good."
"It had been a tempestuous love story," I went on to say, "and like all tempests it had ended as suddenly as it had begun. Sayed Awwad (a well-known colloquial poet, lyricist and playwright, and a close friend of the couple) vividly remembers the wedding, in a church in Al-Ma'sara, on account of a prank Nagui played on the priest. He had asked Awwad to give him his identity card upon entering the church. Extremely puzzled by the request, Awwad had complied; his long friendship with Nagui had taught him to put up with his friend's whims. When Nagui presented him to the priest as one of his two witnesses, or the groom's two best men, Awwad didn't know where to hide himself for embarrassment, as he said. The priest was predictably furious at this monkeying but both Nagui and Leila played innocent, arguing there was nothing in the scriptures to prevent a Muslim being a best man for a Christian groom. 'We are all Egyptians, you know,' Nagui said, winking at the priest."
One of Saad's most memorable achievements in the 1970s was a theatre-café production of a meta-theatrical virtuoso piece, called Inni A'tared (Objection), written by George for comedian Abdel-Rahman Abu Zahra and performed at (the now defunct) Al-Mukhtalt Café, in Ataba square, opposite the National theatre. This theatre-café, designed on the French model, was started by George in 1970 and was intended to reach new audiences outside the traditional theatrical venues, tackle topical issues and make political points in an indirect, amusing way. Its first production was a play by Nagui called Sphinx Café, directed by Mohamed Fadil, now a famous T.V. director; but though it was intended as a revolutionary endeavour, in the service of a cause (Nagui was arrested in 1968 on a charge of communism), the new theatre-café was regarded and celebrated by Leftist critics as an experimental venture, a novelty, and discussed in purely aesthetic terms. The project was revived in 1976, two years after Nagui married Leila, and no doubt with her encouragement. Like Nagui, she was a young, hot-headed revolutionary who wanted to change the world and an ardent theatrical experimentalist. As in Sphinx Café, Objection was set in a real café and revolved around a dispute between a rich landlord and an impoverished tenant. As a lawyer's clerk, Abu Zahra took upon himself defending both cases at once, in the presence of a farcical panel of judges representing right, middle and left political leanings.
Since left-wing artists were viciously targeted in the 1970s by Sadat's regime, and given the fact of her divorce, one can imagine why Leila suddenly decided to emigrate to the States -- a great pity. But though her debut in theatre was brief, Leila Saad, like director Leila Abu Seif, who also left for the States around the same time, continues to be remembered by feminist scholars and historians of the Egyptian theatre as a valued pioneer in the field of stage-directing. Away from home, she has had a fruitful career teaching, acting and directing. But her mother's sickness brought her back and, as she briefly told me on the phone, she felt lucky to have had two years with her before she departed. Now she is in her second semester at the AUC Performing Arts Department teaching acting, and judging by her performance as the "Bag Lady" in , one cannot but wish that she would stay longer and hopefully decide to finally settle down here and extend her activities and rich talents beyond the forbiddingly aristocratic or haute bourgeoisie walls of the AUC.
turned out to be a triple bill with Nagle Jackson's The Noon Watch and John Guare's The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year knocked together in one part, lasting a little over half an hour, and Edward Albee's harrowing Zoo Story forming the second part of the evening following a 15 minute intermission. It did not seem, however, as if one was watching three separate one-act plays. Tom Markus's brilliant conception foregrounded the setting, Central Park, as the real protagonist -- a metaphor for a space on the outer edges of consciousness, somewhere between reality and hallucination, the rational and the absurd, a space inhabited by lonely, frustrated and marginalised figures -- sad specimens of poor, unallied humanity. The cunning set, by Linda Sarver, was the same throughout: a cramped space strewn with autumn leaves, with three green wooden benches, encased on three sides by vividly contrasting photographic vistas of Central Park in autumn, displayed on glass panels and suggesting openness and the mellow gentleness of mother nature. The first scene pitched all the characters in the three plays right into the scene in short, momentarily still flashes. Like something distantly remembered, they appeared and disappeared, shot into view then faded, setting the mood, tone and atmosphere of the whole evening, and orienting and focusing our reception in the way Marcus intended. It was like sitting in a park, watching the world go by and wondering at its infinite resources of savagery and tenderness. All the time, the beautiful set, while serving as a fitting dramatic location, acted as an ironic, unobtrusive running commentary on the characters' stories, whether mundane or lurid.
Central to the whole conception is the Bag Lady, Leila Saad. As the tramp who, though homeless, unlike the other characters, can afford to live in Manhattan, inhabits the park and though penniless seems to own the whole world and win the bets on last week's races (an absurd transaction which nonetheless seems to work in her case), she was pure delight. Though her spoken part is confined to the first play, Noon Watch, she was made by Markus to flit in and out, in her ridiculous get-up, pushing her precious supermarket metallic trolley, and haunting the scene like an eerie sprite. From the masochistic flagellation sex-scene, watched by a cramped, frustrated and quite innocent office worker through the binoculars of a bird watcher in Noon Watch, we graduate to the crazy rantings of Ahmed El-Lozi which Katerina Rosin, as the "She" from Ohio in The Loveliest Afternoon, tragically discovers are only too true. In these two very short plays which flow into each other without interruption, the theme of connecting across class and cultural/geographic barriers, of human loneliness and the dire need for friendship and communication, is subtly introduced, developed and beautifully visualised by Tom Marcus and his cast and crew.
With the second part of the evening featuring The Zoo Story, however, you get the real slap in the face. Throughout, and despite the absurd death of 'He' and 'She' in the second play, the mood seemed deceptively benign; the green, orange and russet surroundings promised a degree of mercy, of sympathy and benevolence. But then, Albee's Jerry, another fringe person, whom we had briefly glimpsed in the first scene, appears to make what turns out to be a fatal lunge at the smug, complacent middle-class professional Peter, forcing him to kill him. Suddenly you realise the direction the show was taking and the point it was trying to make, and make quite sensitively. Quietly, potently, without fuss and declamation, made a strong political statement, spoke volumes about the lot of unfortunate humans in urban surroundings and concretely brought us into contact with the roots of violence underlying modern human transactions. At the end of the evening, it felt exactly like having been led up the garden path, starting off with a sunny vision which gradually gathered dark clouds as it proceeded and finally pitched you right into senseless tragedy and violence -- Beckett's definition of the 'Absurd.'
It seemed somehow fitting and quite fortunate that my second glimpse of Leila Saad should come framed in a pointedly political show which champions the deprived and dispossessed, the underlings in any society. This was where she started and hopefully will end, a fair freedom-fighter. To Marcus's cast: Sairah Kimmel, Mona Gamil, Katerina Rosin, Ahmed El-Lozi, and the admirable Hashem Hassan and Wael Mohassed, and to his crew: Linda Sarver, Hazem Shebl, Thomas George, Yasmine Riad, Amina Chalk and Ahmed Bassiouni, I owe a debt of gratitude for the pleasure, profound feelings and many disturbing insights they gave me last Friday. And to dear, beautiful, and richly gifted Leila Saad, I say: Welcome home.


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