BEIRUT: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious,” playwright and director Joe Kodeih informed his audience at Gemmayzeh Theater Thursday evening.
“Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” He denies that his latest play, “Michel and Samir,” is a representation of Lebanon’s two most-popular Christian leaders – Michel Aoun and Samir Geaega. Instead, Kodeih says he is casting his net far more widely to lampoon the Lebanese predicament as a whole.
“Although everyone says the play includes a lot of political overtones, I frankly say no,” Kodeih told The Daily Star before showtime Thursday. “If the audience wants to [see] it this way, let it be.
“The play will make us laugh very hard,” he continued, “but we will find out we are laughing over appalling daily affairs that date back some 40 years and continue today.”
“Michel and Samir” opens in an insane asylum.
A doctor (Antoine Balabane) is treating two patients who suffer from psychological and neurological disorders. They’re both under the illusion that they are political leaders and both seek an audience to whom they can make speeches and present their ideologies
The two deluded individuals are Michel (Hicham Haddad), who’s been designated patient number 89, and Samir (Rodrigue Sleiman), patient number 2005. The political cognoscenti will recognize the significance of these numbers with respect to the real-life Christian politicians that Kodeih says his play is not about.
Patient 89 and patient 2005 complain that they cannot stand being in the same room with each other. Yet they both share a fondness for the ward nurse (Maguy Badaoui) and become jealous whenever she favors one over the other.
Michel is an angry and ill-tempered man who refuses to take his medication. Samir is unusually calm and pious-looking. Both characters find themselves immersed in unending bickering and quarrels.
Dressed in long coats, patients 89 and 2005 eventually engage in an imagined shootout in which they use their genitalia as firearms. Later, both figures reflect on their obsession with bullets.
The play is highly symbolic.
Perhaps the most important feature of the modest set design is “the chair.” Both patients seem to crave it throughout.
One scene finds both Michel and Samir apparently washing their hands – which audience members might read as a reference to the former militants’ misdeeds during Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, but which also alludes to Lady MacBeth’s well-known “Out, damned spot!” scene – but the stains simply won’t come off.
As their treatment progresses, Samir and Michel’s doctor is on the verge of losing his mind himself. In a moment of therapeutic inspiration, he suggests the pair enroll in a drama therapy class, in which he himself plays a major part.
The drama therapy exercise is based on the tragic story of Oedipus – the mythical king of Thebes who fulfilled a prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother – which has spawned a host of plays, both in antiquity and since.
In the drama class, the two patients play Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polynices, who, as the myth goes, end up killing each other.
Shortly afterward, the asylum’s cook (Abdo Attah) enters and tells the patients to get up and end this farce.
Habitués of the Beirut theater scene will find in Kodeih’s play strong echoes of “Majnoun Yehki,” Lina Khoury’s most recent play (itself an adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor”), which had a successful run at Masrah al-Madina late last year.
Broadly speaking, Kodeih’s piece succeeds in depicting a country whose political culture resembles the goings-on of a madhouse – a country at the will of political figures who inflict their own psychological complexes on the citizenry, driving everyone else insane in the process.
A successful actor and stand-up comedian, Kodeih defies expectations with this new play. He is not just giving us something to laugh about but something to reflect upon as well. He excels at exposing the two main characters’ lust for power while exaggerating the link between power and sexual dysfunction.
The 46-year-old is aware of this new development in his career. He described the play as a “therapeutic comedy” that includes “clownish and psychological” scenes.
“The casting was really hard,” he said. “I had to change actors until I came up with my final team.”
Also an actor and stand-up comedian, Haddad said that his turn as Michel was his first experience acting in this sort of play.
“This is a totally different experience and a much more important one,” he said. “Stand-up comedy is more reliant on the interaction with the audience. Here real acting is involved,” he said.
“It is a very hard role,” he continued. “There are a lot of ups and downs. My character moves from anger to joy to sadness in minutes.”
As the play embraces both serious and comic themes, the preparation process has been intense.
The ensemble met for over 100 rehearsals since the start of the project in January.
The play does not take sides, Haddad noted, or take an explicit political line.
“Every playwright, every person is entitled to his own opinion,” he said. “For Joe, all politicians in Lebanon are crazy. ... For me, craziness is not a negative thing. A lot of ingenious people are crazy.”
Before Thursday evening’s performance, the cast rehearsed at the venue. Badaoui wore her nurse’s costume, while Balabane was resplendent in red trousers and light orange shirt under his doctor’s lab coat.
An experienced actor, Sleiman roamed the stage, shifting into his character. Looking somewhat nervous, every now and then he could be heard scream out his lines. He said this behavior further connected him to his role.
“For me,” he said, “every show is a rehearsal, and what matters is what you draw from these intensive rehearsals of the works you present.”
The four actors’ performances are highly effective, impressive especially because their characters’ moods shift rapidly, demanding continuously shifting facial expressions and composure.
Kodeih’s new approach to theater is skillfully presented, but it leaves the audience a bit in amazement. As the play progresses, onlookers realize they are not witnessing mere entertainment; the play’s object is to hammer home how tragic the course of events in Lebanon has become.
It is an approach that risks alienating Kodeih’s fans who came out for an evening of light comedy.
“Michel and Samir” is at Gemmayze Theater, Ecole Des Freres, Thursday through Sunday until the end of March. For reservations, please call 76-409-109.