There is a lot of magic in how the French story “Oscar and the Lady in Pink made it to the Egyptian stage, via Russia, and came to be an annual offering by theater troupe “Talata (Three).
French dramatist, novelist, and fiction writer Eric Emmanuel Schmitt had a Sufi-like experience when he was stranded in the desert. The agnostic writer realized that there must be a higher power and he found his way to God. His “Oscar and The Lady in Pink echoes this experience, through the eyes of a child.
The 10-year-old Oscar realizes that he is dying of Leukemia, and in his attempt to come to grips with his mortality he clutches to the wisdom of one of the women who work at the hospital: The Lady in Pink. She encourages him to write letters to God to ask his questions and share his experiences.
The child, who does not believe in Santa Claus or God, reluctantly starts writing the letters, and slowly develops a unique connection with the Creator. Since he has only a few days to live, the Lady in Pink suggests he plays a game with time, to live 10 years in each day.
Egyptian pianist Mohamed Saleh was visiting Russia, where he saw a puppet theater performance of this story. The performance moved him deeply, and he traced the script, in Russian. “I loved the script so much, and I felt guilty that my Egyptian friends do not have a chance to read it. So I started translating the letters into Arabic, he told Daily News Egypt.
Theater director Hani El-Metennawi was one of the friends who received the translation. “I got immersed into the world of Oscar. Every few weeks Mohamed Saleh would send me an email with one of the letters. I fell in love with Oscar’s way of seeing the world, and was so eager for the next bit of the translation.
It took Saleh six months to translate the story from Russian to Arabic, and when he read one of the letters aloud to a group of friends El-Metennawi told him, “I found Oscar, you have to play Oscar in the performance.
Saleh is a veteran musician and pianist by profession, with little acting experience. But playing Oscar was such a temptation he could not resist. So it came to be that, in 2007, Saleh started “reading the role of Oscar, initially with actress Magda Mounir as The Lady in Pink, in a simple set that consisted of a table and two chairs.
“We trusted the text. We did not feel we needed to do anything apart from presenting the moving letters of Oscar and the entertaining, faith-promoting adventures of The Lady in Pink. The text is the main protagonist of this show. El-Metennawi said.
The reading/performance was so successful that the group decided to repeat it the following year, and the year after. When they get more funding, they add a few elements to the show, from music to projections of images similar to those found in children s stories.
The group is adamant on presenting “Oscar and The Pink Lady every year. The director believes this is going to be a life-long project, and Saleh thinks that this play will always have a place because it poses questions that tap into the meaning of existence and are not time-specific.
In its fourth year, the play was staged in Rawabet Theater in downtown Cairo, this week. The performance had a simple set: a large garden bench on one side of the space and a rocking chair on the opposite side. Oscar (Saleh) was seated on the bench throughout most of the performance, writing his letters to God. The Lady in Pink (Hanan Youssef) entered to share some of her stories about her career as a women-wrestler, who was never defeated, giving Oscar some tools to deal with his pain and suffering.
The letters are simple, poetic, and original. Oscar writes about his adventures as he moves from the rocky adolescence to the more stable 20s, between lunch and dinner, and reflects on his experiences of growing up (10 years in each day) and growing old and feeble.
Mohamed Saleh gives a superb performance of Oscar, with genuine, childlike sincerity, and a twist of humor.
The touching stories are heart-warming and heart wrenching, but not melodramatic. The genius of Schmitt, who originally wrote the story in French, appears in his ability to ask the most complex questions, in very simple words, conveying the logic of a child who is searching for ways to articulate his pain and confusion about life and death.
Saleh’s brilliant translation brings the story home. In spite of the foreign names of the characters, the language and word choice are truly Egyptian, and the performance has a familiar feel and a local cadence.
The warm “Azizi Rabena (Dear God) at the beginning of each letter crosses theological distances, freeing the religious conversation from the archaic language and weighty rhetoric of classical Arabic. This makes the last letter, which The Lady in Pink writes to God after Oscar passes away, a sobering shock in fusha (classical Arabic), moving the performance from the light communication of the child, to the somber adult language.
The incredibly intimate delivery of Oscar and the humane commanding tone of The Lady in Pink can easily restore your faith in humanity, and in the true power of theater and its ability to engage people’s hearts and minds. “Oscar and the Lady in Pink is the triumph of tone and subtle theater.