At certain moments in time, it can be difficult to tell if one is seated in an important historical moment or situated in a long trajectory of forgettable ones. Such was the impression I was left with after watching “El Mazad (The Auction), the last production to be staged in the Falaki Theater at the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus.
There is a certain poetic timing in presenting a play by revered Egyptian dramatist Mikhail Roman whose works, produced in the 50s and 60s, were censored or completely ignored as the curtain falls on this central downtown Cairo theater, which has served as a playhouse for emerging voices.
We entered the black box to an austere set. Stark and somewhat tattered black wooden furniture played a metaphorical backdrop for what was to unfold. A sign in Arabic saying “Wear Your Slippers was hung enigmatically on the wall.
On either side of the sign were two enlarged photo portraits – the first of a young man in a suit, looking like a car salesman. The other photo of a young woman appears to have been taken at the same time, except that she is wearing an outfit from at least a century before his. In her black blouse with a broad white collar, she conveys the stern look of a 19th century headmistress.
Who were these people and how did they fit in the context of the unfolding story? The young man on the left was the protagonist Hamdy Mabrouk, deftly played by Mina El-Naggar.
The woman’s entrance began the play, and Maryam El-Khashat, as the wife, gave a brief but unparalleled performance. The play began with her belting out a relentless tirade of domestic orders, her husband receiving each with the passivity of a bullied boy on a school yard.
As the drama unraveled, we find out that the wife and her husband are locked in a power play where the husband is infantilized and the wife unsatisfied.
When the wife leaves for a trip in the first scene, the husband finds himself alone in the apartment, confronted with the first of many musings put forth by the playwright on the existential question: What are you going to do with your freedom?
Hamdy dances around like a child – or a madman – jumping on his marital bed with defiance. Running out of things to do, he receives an unexpected visit from a stranger. Enter “The Old Man.
In a white jacket with a pink flower sitting tenderly in his lapel, Adham Zidan as the “old man strolls casually into the apartment, causing the protagonist and audience alike to wonder if he is emerging from a dream or if he is part of the secret service. The old man is the archetypal trickster-sage, enlightener-devil.
Herein begins a series of tests and conversations addressing Hamdy’s manhood, courage, and confidence in his wife’s fidelity. A verbal ping-pong match ensues between the two main characters.
It is this poetic, rhythmic banter which lifts the play into its absurd profundity – climaxing only at the point when the farce reaches the farthest point possible. Someone’s cell phone rang just before this moment.
Zidan and El-Naggar did not miss a beat, and the audience, though clearly unsettled, was confronted with one of the play’s many Brechtian moments.
The house lights shot up and Hamdy was placed on an auction block, turning the audience into prospective bidders. The outraged and at times tender sermons of the “old man trying to sell Hamdy to his unwilling wife, a temptress and his mother, enacted yet further metaphors at the belly of the play.
Archetypes like the “old man are plentiful, but never boring when done well, and for his youthful appearance, Zidan plays the part with conviction.
The performances are executed with precision, and in El-Naggar’s case, surprising physicality. He plays his role with the bemused naivety his shaggy hair and beard suggest, but surprises us at the finale with a mix of grief and rage in a touching monologue that doesn’t lapse into sentimentality.
As noted before, Maryam El-Khasat is one of the highlights of the play, delivering her maniacal maternal sermons with the cruelty of an army general and the sassiness of Egyptian film seductress Hend Rostom.
The unflinching delivery of the dialogue in the play as a whole is a fantastic marriage between Roman’s sharp, intelligent text, the virtuosity of the performers, and the astute direction of Hani Sami.
Only in the minor roles does the audience experiences pauses in the breakneck pace and rhythm or in stage presence – which were thankfully few and far between.
While I can’t attest that this young team achieved the full possibility of Roman’s weighty and witty text, they certainly brought it to life.
Roman’s play, 50 years later, still manages to hit on pertinent cultural issues – sexual repression, psychological schisms, perversion, oppression from oblique yet powerful forces – all in a fresh, postmodern framework.
Catch “El Mazad (The Auction) tonight, 7:30 pm, at the American University in Cairo’s Falaki Theater. Tel: 012 393 8664. Free admission.