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Love, lust and loyalty collide in Lebanon’s answer to Pygmalion
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BEIRUT: The idea of an artist falling in love with his work has very old roots. The ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who became besotted with Galatea, the beautiful marble woman he had carved, was the inspiration behind George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” in which phonetics professor Henry Higgins bets that he can pass Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle off as a duchess. Transformation complete, he is enamored not so much by the now-elegant woman in his life as by his own cleverness, viewing her as an object of his own creation.

This winter Lebanese theater-goers are being given the chance to experience a contemporary Lebanese revival of the Pygmalion story, based on U.S. playwright Theresa Rebeck’s 1992 comedy “Spike Heels.”

Translated into Arabic by Arzé Khodr and adapted and directed by Actors Workshop founder Jacques Maroun, “Ka‘eb ‘Aaleh” (High Heels) is a comedy based on the tangled relationships between Arabic literature professor André (Talal El Jurdi), his best friend Eddie (Ammar Chalak), his fiery, promiscuous neighbor Georgie (Rita Hayek) and his wealthy fiancée Lydia (Nisrine Abi Samra).

A complicated web weaves these characters together. André, who feels sorry for his underprivileged young neighbor, has taken her under his wing, convincing Eddie, a lawyer, to hire her as his secretary. In the opening scene Georgie storms in as André is preparing for a romantic dinner with Lydia – who used to be engaged to Eddie – complaining that Eddie has sexually harassed her. She then makes a move on André, who betrays the depths of his temptation by avidly inhaling her ponytail, but resists her determined advances.

One of the comic highlights of the play, this scene sees Georgie, dressed only in sheer tights, her underwear and one of André’s shirts – which she has liberated from his bedroom, much to his discomfort – enter into a wrestling match with her hapless Pygmalion, attempting to straddle him while he fights her off, quoting Nietzsche and James Joyce in a voice filled with panic.

Angered by André’s rejection, Georgie agrees to go on a date with Eddie, only to once again have her attempt at seduction foiled by Lydia, who appears at her house in the middle of the night, demanding an explanation for André’s decision to postpone their wedding.

The excellent cast manage to ensure that the laughs keep coming even as the serious subject matter – which explores lust and love, sexual harassment and the power dynamics of relationships, from friendship to marriage – is mined to its depths.

There are notable parallels between “Spike Heels” and “Reasons to Be Pretty,” a black comedy about love and physical appearances by U.S. playwright Neil LaBute, which Maroun adapted and directed in November 2012. Both plays revolve around the relationships dynamics between male best friends and the women in their lives, and feature a cast of two men and two women.

Maroun says that these similarities are coincidental, but speculates that he and Jurdi – the only actor to star in both productions – were drawn to the scripts due to their preference for character-driven performances.

“For me it’s about power,” he says of “Spike Heels.” “How everybody uses their power to get whatever they want and it doesn’t necessarily get you to wherever you want to go.”

Maroun has updated the play and altered some of the context to ensure it is culturally relevant to a Lebanese audience, he says, but the subject matter is universal.

“Love is love,” he points out. “Betrayal is betrayal. Lying to one another or to your best friend or to your wife or to yourself ... I think these themes are applicable to any culture.”

A nuanced performance by Hayek is complemented by Chalak’s more slapstick approach to the script, and together they provide much of the comedy.

Jurdi’s performance is more somber, in keeping his with introspective, reserved character, while Abi Samra – who in some ways has the hardest part to play – executes it with aplomb.

Her brief appearances in the second half of the play demonstrates a finely tuned mixture of vulnerability and bravado, living up to the anticipation that builds over the first two acts, in which her character is frequently referenced but never materializes.

Fadi Mansour’s simple yet visually effective set design adds to the production’s slick appeal. Simple, blocky white furniture is grouped to create multiple focal points across the stage, allowing for dynamic movement, and is lit from within, creating a warm glow as light escapes through the opaque surface of sofas, chairs and even a dining table that hangs on four ropes from the ceiling.

Some semi-nudity and sexually suggestive activity mean the production is restricted to those aged 18 years and above, but – aside from Georgie’s fluid swearing – there is nothing particularly shocking here.

One of the funniest threads holding together the action, in fact, is a recurring joke based on the idea that a cup of tea is a cure-all response to emotional turmoil, an idea that the working class Georgie at first deems ridiculous but gradually finds herself adopting. Like most of the fabric of “Spike Heels,” the comedy inherent in this running gag hides a deeper symbolism.

“Ka‘eb ‘Aaleh” runs Thursdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m. at the Monnot Theater until Jan. 19. For more information please call 01-999-666.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 10, 2013, on page 16.
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