BEIRUT: Fairy tales tend to be populated with stock characters whose stories are a series of narrative tropes. Such tales tend to end, for instance, with some variation on the following theme: “They got married and lived happily ever after.”
Young girls reading too many fairy tales are left with the fanatical impression that marriage is their salvation, the solution to all their problems, the secret to a flowery life.
Wafaa Halawi and Marwa Khalil’s dramatic comedy “Znoud al-Sitt” works to dismiss these assumptions by simple means: dramatizing what it is really like to be a “housewife.”
“The play is about being a housewife,” Halawi told The Daily Star. “You can say our starting point is where fairy tales end, what happens after the wedding ceremony.”
Describing their collaboration as an exquisite experience, Khalil said that she and Halawi “clicked right away,” which facilitated the production of the play.
The duo interviewed many Lebanese housewives of different ages and classes to come up with what they thought to be Lebanese society’s “exemplary housewife.”
The play’s principal character is Amal, a middle-aged mother of two who’s married to a banana distribution baron. Over the course of its 90 minutes, the play presents a three-dimensional image of Amal, different facets of whom are depicted by three actors: Halawi, Khalil and Patricia Nammour.
Wearing three versions of the same blood-red dress, the three performers seamlessly step into Amal’s character. Sometimes they complete one another’s sentences.
At other times they demonstrate how one woman can be at odds with herself, responding differently to the same situation at different times.
The object of this theatrical device, Halawi said, was to demonstrate how “the same woman can have many faces.”
The play’s other three actors (Johnny Jabbour, Rayan Abi Faraj and Naim Rizk) depict silent onstage figures, representing, as Halawi puts it, “the three absent-present men in Amal’s life.”
After bidding farewell to her husband Amal sets about preparing a feast for the dinner guests the couple will receive later in the evening.
The dessert is Znoud al-Sitt (literally Lady’s Arms) a traditional Arabic sweet, which she is particularly skilled in preparing. Khalil did not choose this sweet at random.
“It is to show that all responsibilities fall on the shoulders of the woman of the house,” she says. “She has to take care of everything with her own hands.”
The play’s exposition is provided via Amal’s veranda-to-veranda conversation with her (invisible) neighbor who lives in the house facing her own. It is over the course of this chat that the audience learns about the cloak of fiction she wears about herself – her make-believe battles, great deceptions and, most of all, her extreme loneliness.
Amal discloses all, from her combat with her meddling mother-in-law to the tedium of her daily household routine to the endless strain involved in pleasing and serving her husband.
She relentlessly struggles to maintain the “image” of a cheerful woman whose ultimate happiness is achieved through her high-tech home appliances. But on this day, even these – the washing machine and the microwave and the vacuum cleaner – malfunction when she tries to use them.
As these market-driven illusions crumble in her grasp, their failure becomes an allegory for Amal’s internal fragmentation.
Even most of her guests end up begging off from attending Amal’s elaborately planned dinner party – which gives Amal an opportunity to disclose that she wasn’t that keen to host them anyway.
“Amal is somehow a Madame Bovary,” Khalil said, “because she surrenders to her whims and illusions, eventually cheating on her husband.”
Amal throws herself into the arms of her childhood boyfriend. The affair does awaken the housewife’s blunted senses, but it proves not to be the answer she’s looking for.
Women’s intimate lives and the marriage predicament have been common themes on Beirut’s theatrical scene of late, a reflection, perhaps, of increasing rates of divorce in the Arab world.
The trend started a few years ago with Lina Khoury’s “Hakeh Niswan” (Women’s Talk), which adapted Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” for three voices.
More recently, actress Aida Sabra’s one-woman show “Min al-Akhir” (Bottom Line) unveiled some of the secrets of married life, as told from the perspective of a troubled and weary housewife.
Khalil denied that the play belonged to the recent trend in feminist-themed works. The topic of women, she said, was a major concern but she’s tried to free herself and her work from a “feminist” label, which tends to blame men for their difficulties.
“We did not take [Amal’s] side in the play or try to make her [seem] perfect,” the playwright and actress remarked. “She did end up cheating on her husband after all.”
While Sabra’s play may be read as an invitation for married couples to revive and refresh their lives together, Halawi and Khalil appear somewhat more pessimistic.
If the fairy tale ends with “happily ever after,” “Znoud al-Sitt” suggests that mundane marriage stories end with “desperate as ever.”
There is no doubt it will spark heated debates.
“Znoud al-Sitt” is staged in Arabic at Theatre Monnot every Thursday to Sunday at 8:30 p.m. through June 1.