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French Version

Theater extravaganza offers mixed bag of French and Lebanese plays

'Rond-Point Paris-Beyrouth' fare ranges from the well-rehearsed to the last-minute

"Rond-Point Paris-Beyrouth: theatre ville ouverte" is a whirlwind theater extravaganza presently under way in four Beirut theater spaces. It has been organized by the French Embassy's Cultural Mission to Lebanon as an expression of Franco-Lebanese solidarity.

The mission wanted to bring Paris' renowned Theatre du Rond-Point to Beirut, thus enlivening a depressed cultural scene and affirming France's firm support of Lebanon's postwar recovery efforts. The resulting reality is a disparate handful of well-rehearsed French plays alongside a smattering of hastily thrown-together Lebanese works.

"We were told just a month ago that this event was going to take place - of course, because they quickly decided to organize it at the end of the war," explains director Roger Assaf, whose "La Porte de Fatima" opened the program last Saturday. "At first, there were going to be no Lebanese works in the program, but we insisted that we should be represented, and so we had to pull something together in three weeks," Assaf continues.

Works such as Vincent Delerm's "Le Fait D'habiter Bagnolet," and Chantal Thomas' "Le Palais de la Reine," are plays that have already had significant runs in Paris, whereas "La Porte de Fatima," is a newborn work-in-progress. Nevertheless, it successfully opened the Rond-Point Paris-Beyrouth festival and ran again on Sunday and Monday.

"These performances are part of our rehearsal process, and all the stories that we tell on stage are about people that we personally know," says Assaf. "We didn't just decide to make a play about the war now. We have always been deeply involved in the South."

Rising to renown in the Lebanese theatrical renaissance of the 1970s, Assaf founded a troupe of politically engaged performers called "Hakawati," ("Storyteller"). He has trained a multitude of actors and is credited with contributing to the modernizing of Lebanese theater. In the late 1990s, he co-founded the SHAMS cultural collective, later establishing the Theatre Tournesol in Tayyouneh.

"La Porte de Fatima" is a multi-media performance. A plain screen reflects a montage of abstract and documentary images. Alongside are Assaf himself, his longtime collabo-rator and wife Hanane Hajj Ali and Yasmina Toubia, a young member of the SHAMS thea-ter troupe.

The play itself is a circuitous narrative of intimately recounted stories.

Opening with the titular South Lebanese legend of Fatima and her mother Zeinab, who disappears across the Israeli border, the players then impart the tale of a prostitute who is burned alive by her pimp. They move to a dialogue between a woman and the lover she's about to marry, then on to a debate between the Lebanese mother of a "martyr" and the Israeli mother of a soldier. Along the way is the plight of desperate teenagers abusing Ecstasy, the scandal of a professor-led network of students offering sexual favors, and teh delirious man trapped under the bombed debris of his home. They also throw in the story of Tyre coast sea turtles endangered by the disastrous pollution of the Mediterranean.

"The stage is imaginary and the screen is real," reflects Assaf, "so we show real images of the war on the screen and we turn the real people's stories into poetic performances on stage. But sometimes the screen shows images that are purely poetic while the actors on stage plainly recite real historical facts. It's an interaction, and the screen is an active character in the performance."

The play of disparate images on the projection screen is perhaps emblematic of Assaf's aesthetic approach in the construction of "La Porte de Fatima." The actors energetically run through disjointed stories, switch through a series of characters, and often break out of character in order to reflect on the very fact of acting on stage.

Whatever physical and emotional momentum any individual story builds is thus quickly interrupted by a moment of self-reflexive irony or a leap into yet another story.

"I don't want to play the part of a turtle," yells Yasmina Toubia, as she hobbles center stage. Digressing into a casual conversation on the annoyances of taking on improbable characters, Toubia and Hajj Ali then giggle their way through the scene.

Assaf says he'd like to maintain a quality of authenticity on stage but what may initially be a refreshing instant of transparency soon becomes a somewhat aggravating method of deviation. Rather than truly entering into their roles and achieving a state of vital relaxation, Assaf's performers hover between states of altering concentration, playing at being casual, but never focused enough to attain a fully developed stage presence.

Despite their many digressions, the actors remain engaging, and the play might have held strong were it not for the incessantly fragmented nature of its narrative. "Our society is all in fragments and I don't know how to make a synthesis ... I wish I had answers but I don't," confesses Assaf. "We've thrown our impressions onto the stage and it gives birth to more questions, not answers."

Honest as his explanation of his theatrical approach is, Assaf might still have thrown a little less material onto the stage.

All the stories are potentially compelling, and some moments are truly evocative, but with one rapid climax of high drama after another, the play starts to feel a little like a sensationalist news report.

In the aftermath of this past summer's war, there are undeniably dramatic stories to tell, and Assaf may be applauded for having adopted a theatrical mode to reflect a pervasive state of national crisis. Unfortunately, we're saturated with war stories.

This is not to say such stories can't be staged. The Lebanese theater is ripe for modes of politically engaged performance. But such modes should carefully avoid lapsing into the excesses of the televised and print media machines.

Rather than offering more images of war-torn houses, why not show images of beautiful landscapes that have yet to be bombed? Instead of rapidly recounting 10 stories with melodramatic abandon, why not tell just one story that slowly reveals all of its secret details?

As in war - and in news coverage of war - everything in "La Porte de Fatima" moves too quickly. Bombs fall in a second. Lives expire instantly. Each news item makes way for the next, and no one dares look further than tomorrow.

"It was important to present some of our work in this Rond-Point festival," says Assaf, "but to really understand the effects of war, you need time and distance. I would have preferred to wait before making something about the war."

As it turns out - and as is often the case - Assaf put together his play in less than ideal circumstances. He does plan to give it more time, so, for those blessed with the patience to wait, Assaf will present a final version of "La Porte de Fatima" in about two months.

"It's still in its adolescent phase," Assaf concludes. "Don't ask me how it will develop. The ideas come as we collaborate and as we work, with time. There is no planning in advance, but we will work it out."



Beirut,12 04 2006
Redaction
The Daily Star
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