June 26, 2019

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  • ‘Alice’ but no wonderland

    BY DALIA BASIOUNY Cairo – In its second edition, the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) which closed on April 28, presented a mixed fare of theater performances with a focus on works never seen in Egypt before.

    The world premiere of Lebanese performance “Alice”, created by Sawsan Bou Khaled in collaboration with Hussein Baydoun, is a case in point. This one-woman show was directed, authored and performed by Bou Khaled, a theater veteran who made her directorial debut in 2006.

    The exceptionally talented Hussein Baydoun, is an architect by training, but is known in the Arab world and beyond as a visual artist, stage and film designer. His stage work utilizes simple techniques to create theater magic with powerful imagery, reminiscent of the grand theater wizard of our times, Robert Lepage.

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    D-CAF’s program describes “Alice” as “a performance that flirts with the edge of the abyss, where time stops and then accelerates, where realities, fantasies and hallucinations come together to give a true look of [at] the storm inside the brain of most intense state of absence.” Text references are attributed to Agota Kristof’s “Le Monstre” and Fernando Arrabal’s “La Tueuse du Jardin d’Hiver.”

    The performance was presented in two adjacent rooms in the defunct Viennoise Hotel in downtown Cairo. The deceptively simple set consisted of one wrought iron bed, and its bedding. Throughout the performance the bed and everything on it changed shape and function. Through the sheets a third leg appeared to the actress and terrorized her in her sleep. Under the pillows were blown up photos of the protagonist in different stages of her childhood. The photos were all missing one eye, through which the actress poked at the audience. The blanket eventually revealed a larger than life photo of the character’s mother illuminated with a halo, like images of Saints in churches. When the lights changed it was possible to see the actress in the fetus position in her mother’s womb. Toward the end of the performance the mattress transformed into a scaly prehistoric monster. Attached to it were many small dolls with fragmented limbs, representing a child’s nightmare of being eaten alive by a monster.

    “Alice” did not end with that majestic image of the imposing monster occupying a much larger space than the solo performer carrying it on her back. Instead the playmakers chose a more haunting image of the lone actress on top of the bed, which was stacked up high, huddling up her imaginary dog friend, Alice. The theatrical effect came from the projection superimposed on the actress, making her appear as one of the birds in the shadowy tree on the back wall.

    But although the theatrical effects were enchanting, the text was not captivating enough to sustain the 60-minute solo performance. The thin text had one witty line at the beginning as the actress chewed the cucumber she had just used as an eye mask to protect her skin. “Cucumbers end wrinkles…defy time. Cucumber is the time defeater!”

    The rest of the text was neither interesting nor introspective. What pretended to be pensive wording was more like naval gazing, lacking depth or insight into the human psyche and its agony. Simplistic ideas and unimaginative sentence structures were performed in monotone which made them even more painful to listen to.

    (“I am your imaginary friend? You mean I don’t exist? I represent the sick society? Sick with illusion? Shut up, they can hear us. Who? The Houlagou Army, the Mongols. There are no more Mongols? We are in another time?”)

    The pretend dialogue between the protagonist and her puppet dog Alice went in circles.  The protagonist felt trapped, and the audience was trapped with her. “No we can’t leave. Why not? If we leave we die. And what if we die? What kind of life is this anyway? Could we leave? Could we leave? Leave, how?”

    Writing, performing and directing one’s script is a huge challenge. (I tried it myself, and I know how difficult it is.) Bou Khaled has stage charm. Her personal appeal made it possible to follow her as she tossed and turned in the bed for a few minutes, with nothing else happening. She has a great feel for physical comedy, as she moves her limber body and transforms it from an adult to a child to a monster or bird hanging on a tree. But the script she wrote didn’t help her as an actress, to show her range of talents and skills. Directing herself deprived her of the benefit of a critical eye that could have scrutinized both the text and her physical presence on stage.

    Though “Alice” was presented as site-specific theater, it felt more “set specific”. Alas, the cleverly thought out “bed” set did little to save it from being a rather sleepy show.

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