BEIRUT: “Emigration,” according to English art critic, author and painter John Berger, “forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our time.”
It is also the central theme of writer, director and comedian Betty Taoutel’s latest production, currently in the midst of an extended run at Theatre Monnot.
Emigration is a topic that lends itself to discussion of such complex issues as exile and belonging, cultural isolation, identity and globalization.
These are interesting subjects, but they don’t immediately suggest comic potential.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but in “Passport No. 10452,” Taoutel and her co-star and longtime collaborator Hagop Der Ghougassian manage to keep the laughs coming. Playing the mother and father of young Omar (who never appears on stage), they explore the many factors that might tempt a Lebanese family to abandon their homeland, as well as those that would convince them to stay.
Taoutel and Der Ghougassian have been working together for 20 years, and the pair has an easy onstage chemistry. Taoutel gives a comic performance as the neurotic wife, who by turns panics, schemes and pulls crazy stunts to convince her husband to move to Montreal.
Having discovered that, of the 35 children in her son’s class, 26 have dual nationalities, she decides they must flee to protect Omar from Lebanon’s sporadic violence.
Der Ghougassian, who speaks perhaps 50 words in the course of the 80-minute performance, is the perfect foil for Taoutel’s over-the-top antics. His character’s long-suffering sighs, tendency to fall asleep midrant and occasional bouts of absent-minded affection echo audience sentiments when faced with Taoutel’s mugging.
His perpetually crossed arms, expressive grunts and talent for silent physical comedy come close to stealing the show, punctuating Taoutel’s lengthy monologues with comedic subtext.
Named after Lebanon’s landmass of 10,452 square kilometers, “Passport No. 10452” is less farcical than Taoutel’s previous performances.
A double bed stage right serves as the setting of a scene in the couple’s bedroom. A door covered with decals marks Omar’s bedroom. A small table with two chairs allows Taoutel to make dynamic use of the stage while, center stage, a red sofa facing a large coffee table serves as Der Ghougassian’s home base. It’s from here that he reluctantly tunes into Taoutel’s speeches, between trying to pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV.
An upstage projector screen allows Taoutel to punctuate the onstage drama with short film sequences. This serves as the delivery system for some of the funniest moments in the play, as the audience simultaneously witnesses what the characters are seeing and their reactions to it.
There are also a couple of inside jokes for those familiar with the actors’ backgrounds. Reading aloud from a list of Omar’s classmates and their nationalities, Taoutel – whose parents are Syrian and who battled into her 20s to gain Lebanese citizenship – comes across a sole Syrian student. She remarks she has no reason to envy that child, at least.
Reading the next nationality, the mother emits an incredulous, “Even the Armenians have passports now.”
Der Ghougassian – who last month took possession of an Armenian passport after several years struggle – shrugs.
To retain its comedic tone throughout, Taoutel has sacrificed a serious engagement with the play’s complex themes. Some viewers may find the performance superficial in its treatment of issues such as identity and cultural alienation, but on the whole, she finds a compromise between laughter and reflection.
Taoutel excels at slapstick but misses the mark slightly when it comes to the more painful scenes, yet Der Ghougassian’s intervention heightens the moments of poignancy.
“Passport” may not be “high art,” but it leaves room for audiences to laugh in the theater and reflect in their own time.
“This is the best way to pass the tragedy that we’re living,” Der Ghougassian explained before the show. “They will come and they will laugh and maybe they will not be fully conscious of what we’re saying. After the play when they go to have a drink, I think then it will become clear how much it hurts.
“The young parents, like us, who lived the war, say, ‘The war. Oh yes, it was nothing.’ But now that we are parents, we are conscious of how dramatic the war was and what will happen to our children.”
Betty Taoutel’s “Passport No. 10452” continues at Theatre Monnot until March 4. For more information or ticketing, please call 01-204-422.