Review

BEIRUT: On stage, he bemoaned his fate as an aging actor in a country that has no place for the theater, but Rafic Ali Ahmed nevertheless managed to attract a horde of eager audience members, journalists and photographers to last Friday's performance of his one-man show, "Al-Jorsa" ("The Shame").

Despite his many protestations to the contrary, Ali Ahmed has come a long way since his childhood in South Lebanon.

Almost 40 years ago, he came from his village to Beirut as a teenager with dreams of conquering the big city. He hoped to dance with the folklore troupe Caracalla, and he wanted to see his tripartite name in bright lights. Ali Ahmed trained in theater with the stalwart of the Lebanese avant-garde, Roger Assaf, and continued his studies at the Lebanese University's Institute of Fine Arts. Twenty years later, in the aftermath of Lebanon's Civil War, Ali Ahmed performed his first one-man show, "Al-Jarass" ("The Bell") to great critical and public acclaim.

Now, yet another 20 years later, "Al-Jorsa" is his second one-man show. Like its predecessor, it melds storytelling, satire, political commentary and deeply personal emotion to great effect.

It also marks the latest effort in Ali Ahmed's lifelong struggle to create and produce his art in a climate that seems to place nothing but a never-ending series of tragicomic obstacles in his way.

"Yes, it's been 20 years since I've been on the stage! Twenty years! I know. I'm not a real actor. I'm not a real man. After the age of 50, an actor in this country is practically dead. In fact, an actor in this country is dead from the start!" Ali Ahmed laments in the opening scene of "Al-Jorsa."

The stage is bare and black with only four minimalist structures adorning it. There is a doorframe, a hanging lampshade, a rolling desk chair and a large double rectangle that seems to be a windowpane or some kind of wall. All are mere outlines of form and are painted a stark white.

Ali Ahmed completes the aesthetic when he storms onto the stage in a plain white tracksuit with a plain black T-shirt beneath the open jacket.

He immediately launches into a quarrel with his wife. "What do you want me to do?! I can't do anything else. It's all I know how to do!" he yells toward an undisclosed location off-stage.

We presume he is at "home," and although it is unclear where his wife may be or what exactly it is she has said to make him so angry, it is clear that this is a grave situation - albeit a ridiculously comical one.

Thus unfolds Ali Ahmed's autobiographical examination of life as a failed actor, a failed father and a failed husband in the failed country that is present-day Lebanon. Pacing between the doorframe and the desk chair while desperately defending his manhood to his reproachful wife, Ali Ahmed embodies the melodramatic hysteria of an Egyptian soap opera. But throughout all the ranting and raving he manages to imbue his dramatic excesses with subtle wit, tempering his frenzied outbursts with interludes of intense emotion.

He yells at his wife, begging her to understand his difficult position as a struggling actor, only to wholeheartedly concede to her criticisms. He mocks his children for wanting exorbitantly expensive sneakers and listening to rap music by artists with no talent such as 50 Cent, only to break into a jubilant dance routine set to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." He expresses his deep attachment to the sea, the mountains and the chaos of Lebanon, only to harbor a wildly elaborate dream of moving to Canada so as to turn his teenage son into a professional basketball star.

He idealizes the rural past of his childhood in South Lebanon, only to mockingly impersonate every nosy village neighbor and every morosely fatalistic village mother. He describes his love of performance and his big dreams for stardom, only to disparage the entire acting profession as a self-regarding and socially useless endeavor. And he mocks the religious prejudices and political megalomania of Lebanese power players, only to nobly declaim several humanist manifestos himself.

Given this constant interplay of contradicting scenarios, "Al-Jorsa" proves to be a markedly absurdist romp through the cliches of the ongoing Lebanese crisis. And despite its decidedly hackneyed subject matter, the show manages to offer the audience an evening of thoroughly cathartic emotion and laughter.

After all, it could have been an entirely boring performance. We've heard the same old war stories and nostalgic anecdotes too many times. But whether Ali Ahmed acts out a scene of malevolent manipulation at the hands of a censorship official or performs the perfunctory impersonation of a local taxi driver, he draws out insightful details that render each scene potently recognizable.

More than any innovative concept or groundbreaking political statement, it is Ali Ahmed's consummate technical skill as a theatrical artist that elevates "Al-Jorsa" to the status of true entertainment. Ali Ahmed's stage presence is unmistakable, his use of stage props brilliantly economical and his spoken narrative a feat of seamless transitions. Whether he tenderly takes on the wise words of his father or crudely mimes a scene of animal castration in the village, he maintains the dramatic pull of each moment. Moving from one story to another, he wields the doorframe as a street vendor's cart, he stares at the window pane so as to indicate it is a television screen and he pulls down the adjustable lamp shade to concentrate its wide arc of light into the narrow circle of a spotlight. He puns on words, playing with the homonym of maniaque in French and maniac (f****r) in Arabic, and he deftly mixes jaunty colloquialisms with erudite musings in classical Arabic.

Most notably, he constructs a complicated narrative that effortlessly moves from one disparate episode to the next, utilizing a wide range of metaphorical devices, prop ploys and conceptual comparisons to pull together the strands that connect his heterogeneous stories.

The actor's miserable despair becomes a metaphor for the country's miserable decline. An acting agent's attempt to neutralize the distinctly Shiite name of "Rafic Ali Ahmed" into a pleasantly vapid "Shadi Nassim" leads into the overriding themes of manhood and national identity.

The wailing of a village mother for her departing teenage son echoes the wailing of a disappointed wife for her aimless, middle-aged husband. And with every connecting strand of his story, Ali Ahmed moves closer to a conclusion in which he leaves all the stories behind.

"Al-Jorsa," which was presented as a work in progress during the "Rond-Point Paris-Beyrouth" event in December 2006, is probably too long and would have benefited from several judicious edits. But as Ali Ahmed declares at the start of the show, it's been 20 years since he's been on stage. He has a great deal of energy and a great many thoughts to release, and after having run through a vast spectrum of opinions and emotions, Ali Ahmed is rightfully exhausted - as must be the audience members who live through the experience with him.

In the final scene of "Al-Jorsa," Ali Ahmed performs a slow march offstage, carrying the doorframe as though it were his own coffin and bidding farewell to the audience with one final thought.

"I don't know what to say anymore," he mutters, staring at the ground. "I have no more stories to tell. I have no more dreams to fulfill. I'm too old. It's time for the youth to take my place and fulfill their own dreams however they can. They have to tell their own stories now," Ali Ahmed concludes, and in a final gesture of release, he steps offstage.

Rafic Ali Ahmed's "Al-Jorsa" runs Thursdays through Sundays at the Monnot Theater in Beirut

until February 25. For more information, please call +961 1 202 422

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16/02/2007