Sunday was a rough day for the unfair sex. In “Adila” by Nehad Gad, a reading at the Arab Theatre Festival, the materialistic Adila (Emily Hoffman ’10) discovers her husband is dead only after nagging his corpse for 20 minutes. In “The Last Walk” by Alfred Farag, the audience learns that the husband is dead only after a jail guard asks the main character (Marie Ostby ’07) why she killed him.
The readings were the second part of Masrah Arab, or the Arab Theatre Festival, a three-part series produced by the Arab Students’ Association, the Theater Studies Department and other sponsors. Both were short, one-woman shows by Egyptian writers, and both dealt with women’s roles in modern Egyptian society. Performed in the Theater Studies ballroom in front of a small audience, the readings were followed by a question and answer session with the actors, directors and Dr. Farouk Mustafa, a professor from the University of Chicago who acted as a mentor for the festival. The productions remained casual in order to encourage audience involvement and interaction, said Eyad Houssami ’07, the former president of the Arab Students’ Association and coordinator of Masrah Arab.
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“There is no precedent for an Arab theater festival at Yale,” said Houssami. “We want to open up the stage to new names and new voices. This is an invitation. The idea is to make the works accessible to both actors and audience.”
Accessibility can be an issue when interpreting and presenting foreign works for the first time, Ostby said, especially when those works were created in the context of a different culture with different beliefs and values. “The Last Walk,” directed by Meg Fitzpatrick ’10, depicted a rural woman grateful for the “tenderness” of her husband’s beatings. Ostby said it was a difficult role to assume.
“It was hard being earnest in that role,” Ostby said after the performance. “I had to try not to be sarcastic about what I was saying. I had to try to believe in that value system.”
Mustafa assisted the actors and directors in making the works more accessible, giving them advice on how to perform the scripts they were working with.
“I exchanged long e-mails with the directors,” he said. “I suggested they read my book, ‘Modern Egyptian Drama.’ I suggested they employ a more theatrical interpretation of the works.”
The directors said they appreciated Mustafa’s advice as it gave them a greater degree of confidence than they would have otherwise had in their interpretations of the unfamiliar works.
“I was drawn to directing the reading out of the curiosity of utter ignorance in regards to Egyptian drama,” said Alex Borinsky ’08, director of “Adila.” “At first I wasn’t quite comfortable with the script. We felt very reverential toward it. Talking with Farouk Mustafa helped us out of that, and helped us to really get into the guts of the play.”
The readings were presented together because of their similar approaches to the subject of womanhood in Egypt. While “The Last Walk” deals with the life of a rural woman, “Adila” portrays the wife of a petty bourgeois lawyer in Cairo. Most of Masrah Arab’s readings deal with women, war, or both, as in the festival’s next and final reading, “Women of War,” which will take place Sunday at noon.
“It’s a total coincidence that all of these plays are about women and war,” Houssami said. “Really, we just wanted to present the best contemporary Arabic playwriting, and it just so happened that all of our selections were about those two themes.”
Houssami said his studies of Levantine theater inspired him to create the festival. It is the first of its kind at Yale.
“If we don’t present these plays at Yale, who will present them?” Houssami said.
The plays were warmly received, but some members of the audience, including Omar Christidis SOM ’07, said they were unsure that actors raised in Western cultures would be able to identify with the women they portrayed.
No plans have been made for another Arab Theatre Festival next year.