ADMA, Lebanon: “Tariq al-Shams” (Way of the Sun), the latest theater play of feted composer, lyricist and director Romeo Lahoud, is a musical fantasy inspired by contemporary politics – specifically the interplay of Lebanese sovereignty and foreign influence.
The two-hour play is a multi-faceted evocation of Lebanese folk culture. The music and dance echo with dabke rhythms. The costumes – the women’s colorful skirts and the men’s sherwal (deep-crotched baggy trousers) – are traditionally modeled. The set design is redolent of the Lebanese nostalgia for the architecture of Ottoman-era palaces, antique columns and castles.
“Tariq al-Shams” features the work of some 40 artists, including 24 dancers from the new Troupe Alain Merheb, led by Nay Merheb, who choreographed the show. Lahoud not only composed the music but also advised on the set design.
The play tells the story of a palace situated at a crossroads, whose location (more than its beauty or size) stirs the envy of all its neighbors.
As the play opens, Sitt Murjanah (Fadia Abboud) plans to throw a big party for all the villagers. The night before, various figures arrive at the palace uninvited – the Ottoman pasha (Walid El-Alayli), the French consul (Issam Merheb), the Saudi emir (Joseph Abu Khalil) and a silk trader named Haidar (Jad Katrib).
The visitors tell Murjanah that they’ve come to help develop ties between their countries and hers, but all secretly plot to make the palace their own.
Then the beautiful Sitt Bdour (Pierette Katrib), who stands for the nation’s conscience, arrives at the palace. Her role is to uncover and overcome the wicked schemes of the palace’s envious neighbors.
Receiving Sitt Bdour is Antara (the vocalist Mikayella), an orphaned young woman who serves at the palace. Witty and outspoken, Antara immediately befriends Sitt Bdour but the older lady never explicitly reveals what the aim of her own visit is.
“I come as I may go,” Sitt Bdour tells everyone, “whenever the truth is calling me.”
The night of the party, while everyone is having fun, the foreign emissaries deploy rhetorical tropes like “freedom,” “modernization” and “liberty” in a bid to cajole Murjanah into submitting to their influence.
The stout-hearted lady refuses, however, making it clear that, as far as her palace is concerned, she would never make any compromise.
The next day, however, Murjanah disappears. Antara enters, declaring that her mistress has been kidnapped by two unidentified men. Murjanah’s bloodstained robe is found and, assuming the stout-hearted lady is dead, the foreign emissaries accuse Sitt Bdour of murder and demand she be put on trial.
Over the course of her trial, Sitt Bdour defends herself and exposes the foreigners’ schemes. She also reveals that Haidar, the silk trader, is the son of a man killed in the palace who has returned seeking revenge. She then tells him the truth of his father’s death.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, it’s revealed Murjanah is not dead at all. She and Sitt Bdour had contrived this entire plot in an effort to be rid of the unscrupulous foreigners.
Defeated and angry, the emissaries depart. The sons of the village rejoice, sing and dance in celebration. There is great joy in the land.
As should be clear from this synopsis’ references to Ottoman, French and Syrian influence – which are all elaborated in the characters’ dialogues – Lahoud’s play is a political allegory, embedding contemporary commentary within a fantastical tale from an imagined past.
Skeptics will find that, as allegories go, “Tariq al-Shams” values feel-good optimism – reminiscent of the Rahbani Brothers’ oeuvre – over the painful realities of contemporary politics.
Lahoud’s wily Lebanon, able to outwit foreign powers determined to control her destiny, might have found better purchase in the political imagination of the 1970s, when the country retained a few vestiges of sovereignty.
Those skeptics might argue that, in light of Lebanon’s post-1970s history, the play’s nostalgia for the good old days – when the country was still simple and maintained its traditions – is sweet but somewhat delusional. One trope that invariably rings true in an age when political leadership is wanting is the popular yearning for a savior like Sitt Bdour. There is no shortage of saviors hereabouts.
“Tariq al-Shams” continues at Casino du Liban until April 6, Wednesday to Sunday at 8:30 p.m.