DC is just the city for a company like Ambassador Theater. Home to a constant tide of diplomats, businessmen, and wandering tourists, this town must re-translate every day to keep the population flowing. Ambassador knows its audience is up for some cross-cultural fun and games, and they’re clearly excited about this new project: the US premiere of two one-act crime dramas from Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag, translated by Dina Amin.
The play pairing is called Trespassing — a fit theme for this internationally-minded company. The thrill of crossing borders is not unrelated to the titillation of exploring someone else’s personal space. To this end, the plays’ titles (The Visitor and The Peephole) are suitably salacious. And the arrival of foreign bodies into both — an impending break-in by a homicidal criminal in the first story; a beautiful murder victim discovered on a chaise in the second — spark a positive charge throughout both of these smart scripts.
You may catch a slight whiff of exoticism from the show’s promotional materials, which invite you to “trespass into a nighttime world of desperate crime and ruthless criminals.” I suppose a creative team with such multi-culturalist verve can be forgiven a touch of grandiosity. But throughout this uneven production, which somehow seems to grow more stilted and unsure as the minutes pass, we are fed much that proves harder to swallow.
A minor example, but a germane one, is the show’s decor. The ornate parlor room (used in both acts) boasts an enormous sarcophagus on the wall, hanging frescos of hieroglyphics, and a coffee table whose base is a great stone pyramid. Are we to believe this is how residents of modern Cairo decorate their apartments? If so, remind me to pick up a Mount Rushmore shower curtain and a floor lamp shaped like the Statue of Liberty on my way home tonight.
Such bemusing instincts turn momentary distractions into deeper ones, particularly with regard to the acting style. Farag was a seminal mid-20th century writer who penned more than fifty plays; his dialogue is both methodical and mischievous, punctuated by jabs of dry wit. Here at the Mead Theatre Lab however, where Ambassador is in residence for this run, Farag’s scripts get an indelicate work-over, and the cast’s attempts to combine strains of naturalism, noir, farce, and slapstick all into the same scene are erratic and misguided.
For this lack of consistency, the whodunit twists and turns have been hammered into strange and uneven shapes in both The Visitor and The Peephole (directed by Gail Humphries Mardirosian and Hanna Bondarewska, respectively).
Rather than touching on the truth in what they’re saying, most of the actors mug loudly and often, pitching cartoonish emotions and oversized gestures as if competing for our attention. Time and again, hurried exhortations follow meaningless mid-sentence pauses, punching holes in the rhythm and logic of the scenes. It’s not so much dull as bewilderingly out-of-tune.
The staging and flow (of entrances and exits, bodies and props) are careful and effective in both acts. The costumes by Elizabeth Ennis are thoughtful and smart, as is Greg Jackson’s set and Paul Oehlers’s music and sound. The performers are not without skill. Farag’s text is intriguing, and both directors are accomplished and invested. So why doesn’t it click?
Closes November 3, 2012
Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint
916 G St NW
Washington, DC 20001
1 hour, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
A bit of a Sphinx’s riddle, it seems. Perhaps things will even out after a few more performances. One can only hope this is in the cards, because the play selection is commendable and the project worth investigating. In The Visitor, a vulnerable actress and a self-assured cop wait quietly for the arrival of a criminal who also happens to be a rival actor — a detail that allows for a delightfully double-edged riff on how the art of acting can reveal the truth, even as we’re reminded that our real-life acquaintances are constantly playing into imagined roles.
The Peephole is similarly tricky: the motley crew that bears witness to the corpse are not only unsure of whether to report the death, they have not yet convinced themselves — and perhaps never will — that the crime has actually happened.
At once brainy and nimble, Farag’s plays are easily enjoyed in translation. Let’s hope that this worthwhile import can find its footing onstage. It’d be a shame to lose this one to the sands of time.
Trespassing . Two one-act plays by Alfred Farag. The Visitor, directed by Gail Humphries Mardirosian. The Peephole: directed by Hanna Bondarewska. Featuring: Hanna Bondarewska as Negma Sadiq (The Visitor)Ivan Zizek as Mahmud Suliman (The Visitor) and Hasan (The Peephole); Rob Weinzimer as doorman (The Visitor) and Hasanayn(The Peephole); Stephen Shetler as Husayn (The Peephole); James Randle as Husayn (The Peephole); Adam Adkins as Shaldum (The Peephole) . Set Design by Greg Jackson. Sound & Visual Effects by Paul A. Oehlers. Costumes by Edwin Schiff. Lights by Marianne Meadow. Asst. Director, James Randle. Stage Manager, Jennifer Grunfeld
Produced by Ambassador Theater. Reviewed by Hunter Styles.