BEIRUT: A man and a woman meet years after sharing one perilous night. Initial enthusiasm spurred by reunion soon subsides when it is discovered that, in fact, they harbor disparate versions of a shared past.
The original play “I Have a Goldfish” treads the careful line between memory and imagination and asks of its audience a question: To what extent can the human mind recast memories and create alternate realities, all to find a place to call home?
“The theme of the play revolves around the feeling that you don’t belong in your own environment, and how you filter your own memories, rearrange them using your imagination to create your own reality,” said Yara Bou Nassar, who along with Elie Youssef wrote, directed and is performing in the play opening Thursday at Monnot Theater.
The subject matter – the feeling of not belonging anywhere and coping by creating a private imaginary world – concerns both playwrights personally.
“In Lebanon, things are very individualistic and I bet many people feel the same. The thing is, you wake up, you go down the street, you meet people, you talk to them, but you don’t feel like you are connecting with them,” said Elie Youssef.
He described the often-turbulent political environment and pervasive sectarianism in the country as barriers to forming solid collective identities that people can latch on to. “This brought the urge to do this project,” he said.
For her part, Bou Nassar always describes herself as living in a bubble. “I don’t believe there is patriotism here because it belongs to each sect. But, if you look at it from a distance, you, like everyone, has their own bubble ... you don’t have a common reference point.”
Bou Nassar believes there is already an illusory aspect associated with living in Lebanon, as many boast of different versions of history, be it personal or political. Memory and imagination, then, become two important factors to be able to deal with the disconnection.
These themes play out in the relationship between two characters, a man and a woman, neither of whom are named. Only having met once before, during the war, when the man serendipitously helped the woman escape bombardment by giving her somewhere to hide, the two reunite years later in the very same space that once shielded them from the clamor of the world outside.
Through the course of the play, it is revealed that the brief encounter had been of monumental importance for the woman, one she revisited time and again. “Throughout the play we get the impression they share the same feelings of excitement of finding each other, until a point, when we realize they actually don’t,” said Bou Nassar.
Each perceives what happened in a different way and assigns his or her own subjective level of significance, one of substantial import to the woman and seemingly little for the man, who may just be playing along. And in between these contrasting impressions and expectations are their wavering silences:
Her: “I have found you ... you are my home!”
Him: “... (silence)”
It is through the character of the woman that the theme of belonging and alienation are personified, according to both Bou Nassar and Youssef.
The nearly two-year process of workshopping the play was a synergetic one, as both theater practitioners often work together and have cultivated a special chemistry over the years.
However, they admit that working as both directors and performers in the play was at times frustrating and always challenging.
“We can do everything, we can write, sketch the movement, set it up visually ... but you still miss the element of someone from the outside looking and deciding if its working or not, because theoretically it could work, but practically it could not. You need a bird’s eye view,” said Youssef.
They called in fellow practitioners and trustworthy friends to take a look at the piece and provide their own directorial perspective, something both Bou Nassar and Youssef were grateful to get. On most occasions, however, They took turns playing director while the other “searched for the character through improvisation.”
As such, the play features many monologues where the characters share their innermost thoughts with the audience.
And in light of a restrictive budget, both had to be creative when it came to devising the mise en scene, one that was minimalistic without compromising the quality of the production.
The duo emphasized that the play did not have a universal message for its audience. Rather it was an honest work that they hoped would somehow resonate with those who saw it.
“The ultimate goal is that, hopefully, everyone who sees the play takes one idea or a feeling and thinks about it the next day,” said Youssef.
Bou Nassar’s and Youssef’s “I Have a Goldfish” will be performed at Monnot Theater from Feb. 28 until March 17. For more information, please call 01-202-422.