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‘Listen, Abdel Samie’: A superb elucidation of a shrewd novel

An old woman suddenly emerges from the audience, calling and wailing over her beloved Abdel Samie. Then, a spotlight lands on a young blind storyteller, standing by an old shadow puppet contraption. Noticing a striking resemblance between her long lost husband, Abdel Samie, and the blind storyteller, Abdel Basser, the old woman, Al-Khamessa, takes us through a series of flashbacks with her husband before he disappeared.

With this scene, the Min Dah ‘ala Dah Theater Troupe opened its performance of “Isma’ Ya Abdel Samie” (Listen, Abdel Samie) at the French Cultural Center on Wednesday night. The play, performed as part of the 10th Festival for Young Creators, is an adaptation of the book by Moroccan writer and theater director Abdel Karim Barshid.

Diving into the protagonist’s memories, the stage lights open on a youthful Al-Khamessa (played by Sara al-Derzawy) with Abdel Samie (Mostafa Khater) in their house. Al-Khamessa is a typical Arab woman, striving for a better life; and despite financial strains, she longs for the day her house will be filled with children. Abdel Samie, on the other hand, is a dreamer, an inventor, and a mad man; he uses imagination and bitter humor to make up for the failures of his life. He fills up their poor home with inventions that his wife sees as useless and wastes of time.

“Imagination is the poor’s path to happiness,” he tells her.

Conflict grows between the young couple — a strong woman who wants more and a dreamer who is satisfied with what he has. Throughout the play, the couple swings between genuine laughs and disappointment until the day comes when all the dreams and toys fly away with the disappearance of Abdel Samie, leaving behind a miserable wife lamenting her youth, her love and the happiness she wasn’t aware of until it was gone.

Khater and Derzawy give impeccable performances with perfect articulation and sturdy projection. The chemistry between the two young actors cannot be better; they practically own their characters. They succeed in depicting the conflict between innocence and materialism, and the struggle between selflessness and selfishness. And despite the somber events of the play, Khater and Derzawy are able to induce laughter from the audience throughout the 45-minute performance.

The dialogue is all in Modern Standard Arabic.

Reda al-Neggar, the stage designer, keeps the play simple, yet symbolic. The empty bed represents the couple's failing marriage, the windmill in center stage is life, and the wooden bunny is innocence and purity. However, the lighting is below average. The straightforward shift between the spotlight during monologues and general lights in dialogues falls short in exposing and highlighting the intense struggle contained within the play.

The sound design is adequate: the tune accompanying Al-Khamessa’s last monologue is moving and adds to the build-up of the finale, as she leaves the stage to continue her search for Abdel Samie.

The play ends with Al-Khamessa old again, browsing the audience’s faces for Abdel Samie, crying, “You all look like him; you are all Abdel Samie.”

“Listen, Abdel Samie” is one of the best performances I have seen in a long time, a perfect interpretation of a well-written text with great acting and staging. Egypt's theater scene needs more complete performances like these.

Also showing in the festival is “Improvisations in the Head,” a 50-minute play by the Charisma Troupe. The play will be shown Friday, 24 February at 6 and 8 pm at the French Cultural Center, on Madrasset al-Hukouk al-Firinssiya Street in Mounira.

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