BEIRUT: It’s the end of a sweltering weekend at the Sanayeh Garden. Kids are everywhere, whizzing on scooters, climbing trees or clambering around on benches. A few are becoming fractious; others are beginning to wilt.
Parents are dispersed in chattering groups. Local news-junkies catch up with the newspapers. At the gate, a foul [fava beans, that is, not bad-tempered] vendor does a roaring trade.
In the central concrete basin that was intended to house a fountain, a wild-haired old bat in a floral housecoat is casting magic spells while an impromptu audience stands agog.
This is Teta (Grandma), one of the stars of “Nhar w Layl” (Day and Night), a puppetry performance set to appear at various Beirut parks over the next few weeks.
Part Yoda, part Psammead, wrinkly Teta uses an eccentric selection of tools – a stethoscope, a bicycle horn and a pair of metallic goggles – to conjure up missives from the beyond.
As maneuvered by puppeteers Eric Deniaud and Aurelien Zouki, Teta causes to materialize a bunch of metallic flowers, a giant egg and a selection of winsome animals.
Each bears a colorful scrap of paper that, when handed to an eager audience member to read out loud, transpires to be a Lebanese nursery rhyme, a counting game or a tongue twister.
Throughout the half-hour show, which was devoured greedily by the Sanayeh crowd, Deniaud and Zouki energetically provide voice effects, toot through harmonicas and recorders, animate multiple magical creatures and interact with the audience.
Their simple, folksy set deploys the symbols of village life – wooden shutters, woven baskets, a stylized tree branch – resembling a kids’ TV show.
A collaboration between Collectif Kahraba and publishing house Dar Onboz, “Nhar w Layl” brings no less than two of Dar Onboz’s high-concept picture books to the stage.
True to its name, “Nhar w Layl” begins in daylight and finishes in darkness, Teta’s segment being performed at 6:30 p.m. “Ken Fi Asfour 3a Shajra” (There Was a Bird on a Tree), as her segment is called, is adapted from Najla Jreissati Khoury’s nursery rhyme book compiled for Dar Onboz after extensive travels throughout the country.
The second half, an innovative shadow puppet performance, is performed at the Stygian hour of 8:30 p.m.. “Sab3a w 7” (Seven Plus 7), a story from ebullient Dar Onboz co-founder Nadine Touma, follows the adventures of a group of animals who labor to return the misplaced moon to its place in the sky.
Flitting between various screens and reflective panels dispersed across a large four-legged frame, the collective uses light and sound to breathe life into filigree silhouettes, cut by Deniaud from wafer-thin sheets of aluminum.
Touma takes on the mantle of narrator in the tradition of the hakawati (storyteller). Gesturing, emoting and taking on different voices, wielding torches and mannequins, she depicts the adventures of her moon-hunting creatures.
A row of infants sat captivated by her labors Sunday evening.
Cleverly rendering fireflies, incandescent roses and a horseback-riding frog using only cutouts and battery-operated lights, the performers make no attempt to hide themselves.
Dar Onboz co-founder Sivine Ariss sits to one side, conjuring a mellow soundtrack from thumb pianos, coconut shells and drums. The audience’s intimacy with the mechanics of the performance serves only to heighten the theatrical magic.
In creating “Nhar w Layl,” the team was very conscious of perpetuating Lebanon’s performance traditions.
“What links the two performances is that they are both part of our oral and visual tradition,” says Touma. “There used to be touring theater shows. There used to be hakawati.”
Like modern-day hakawatis, the troupe plans to peddle the production all across the land.
Taking a mid-performance break on Sunday, Zouki describes how “Nhar w Layl” was developed with portability in mind. The set, sound equipment and props can be packed into a car and reassembled almost anywhere.
“This is the result of a long-held dream,” says Zouki, tapping his newly acquired tiered seating structure, far too small for the vast audiences of Sunday evening.
“We have always wanted to create a moving theater with performances all around the country.”
Collectif Kahraba and Dar Onboz are hoping to attract funding from municipalities or private sources to fulfill this dream.
In the meantime, if you find yourself strolling through a Beirut park, keep an eye out for supernatural Tetas and moon-obsessed frogs.
“Nhar w Layl” continues in Sioufi Garden on May 28, 29 and the Beirut Pine Forest on June 4, 5. For details, call +961 3 012 552