The Temple Theatre Troupe throw taboo to the wind and invade the sacred sanctuary of the family to disturbing, if comical, effect.
‘Life is beautiful or waiting for my uncle from America' explores the touchy issue of what happens in a family in which communication and understanding break down. This is done with a refreshing directness, boldness and irreverence – no long-winded moralising and predictable reconciliation.
The play delves into the lives of a dysfunctional family of four and their maid/nanny. The members of the household live in their own separate planes of awareness which, apart from the odd pretence at communicating, effectively sever them clean from the rest of the family where they each float alone in the orbit of their individual concerns. They express the hypothesis that the dysfunctional whole is less than the sum of its parts.
In a familiar manifestation of life in Egypt's major cities, the family, although they occupy separate existential dimensions, are forced to live in extremely close proximity on the physical plane. For two lovebirds in the passionate throes of infatuation, this could be an ideal set up. However, for this estranged family, the arrangement is far from perfect.
The performance space draws the audience into the claustrophobic clutches of this manic family by manipulating the tight dimensions of the Howard Theatre and the necessary closeness of the audience to the action to build up an atmosphere of tension and pent up inadequacy. Enclosing the audience is a wire fence representing imprisonment (as well as the walls of the apartment) that gives them an unsettling feeling of being as trapped as the actors.
The play explores the individual worlds of each member of the family: the two sons, the mother, the father and the loyal servant. The younger son is a frightening incarnation of the ‘work, buy, consume, die' mentality, although he leaves the work component to his poor dad. He spends his entire day vegetating in front of the TV, sleeping or worshipping his pop idols.
He takes time out from this to pester his mother and, occasionally, his father for the “LE175 Levi's” or the top-of-the-line Nokia phone he must have because of its 125 indispensable features.
His older brother, who spends most of the play on the toilet seat, bare-thighed, in what is apparently a drug-induced frenzy, gleans more and more disturbing truths about the world we live in from the newspapers that lie scattered at his feet.
The mother, sickly and bedridden, has only a marginal role to play in the family: as appeaser to the father and feeble resistor of the younger son. The father is a man with limitless dreams of wealth and fortune. Throughout the play he dreams of what he will do when his brother in America comes back to Egypt to bail him out and be his saviour. He fantasises about all the lavish things he will do for himself and his family once that awaited windfall arrives.
The maid is the character that holds all the threads together. She understands each member of the family and their motivations and as, ultimately, the outsider, she also doubles as our narrator and guide through parts of the performance. With time, as the family has disintegrated, she has grown more and more wedded to her fate and suffers it in peace.
We get some inclining of this at the beginning of the play, when she comes on and cleans the apartment in total silence and with a robot-like precision and indifference. While this was an amusing way to start the performance and gave clear indication that something was definitely amiss with this household, it did, to an extent, detract from the overall quality because it involved humour that was somewhat slapstick and immature.
The play develops along a repeated cycle. The two brothers do their thing, the mother lies incapacitated, the father comes home nightly to lecture about his plans and dreams, not caring if anyone is really listening and not caring really to listen to anyone.
This routine is interrupted intermittently by the maid doing household chores and reminiscing about how the family used to be. There are also the phone calls from the prodigal uncle who comes up with a new series on concocted excuses for why he can't return to his beloved Egypt for the time being.
The play gave young talent the chance to ripen. However, the presence of a veteran actor, Ahmed Kamal, as the father, helped keep the play from slipping into mediocrity in parts with his exceptional and humorous delivery of long-winded monologues.
The younger son, Hassan Al Kreidli, succeeded in annoying me with his childishness, although at one point I couldn't figure out if that was due to the character he was portraying or the way that he was portraying it.
Waleed Marzouk gave an interesting interpretation in humorous mime of the warped older brother, although, having no real life reference point, I couldn't tell how much of it was theatrics and how much of it was accurate.
The stage design and lighting showed promise. They were an example of how, with a little creativity, you could convey a powerful image and construct a bleak atmosphere with low-cost materials.
The set up of the stage, along with the movement of the actors and the lighting, helped convey the idea of psychological boundaries separating the family. The rantings and ravings of the family were lent an extra disturbing bent with the recorded crescendo of screams that followed the shifting of blame that came in the wake of the mother's death. The major disappointment was the forced symbolism when the actors reached up to the sky to catch the fleeting light of their dreams on several occasions during the performance.
This play is ostensibly about a family coming apart at the seams. In a broader context, it could be interpreted as a commentary on the state of independent theatre and the lack of co-ordination and harmony therein.
Alternatively, it could be seen as a commentary on the social impact of ‘Big Brother' US-AID and the divisive effects it has on a society ill-equipped to handle it, with the wannabe American, the ostricised intellectual and the latent but brooding masses.
More simply, it could just be an exploration of a society undergoing the painful and soul-destroying transition to consumerism. The message should be left for you to interpret and, if you want to witness the exciting developments at the peripheries of the theatre scene, this is a play well worth taking an evening out to see.
This article appeared in the August 2000 issue of Egypt's Insight magazine.