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Stories from Third World Alleys

A reanimated Rawabet Theater, Downtown, continued its Third Annual Independent Theater Festival program last week after shutting down for almost a month in order to attend to a few overdue technical repairs. The festival resumes with Talata theatre troupe’s show “Stories from Third World Alleys,” based on Argentinean playwright Osvaldo Dragun’s “The Man Who Turned Into a Dog.” The troupe–which notes in its program its commitment to presenting local productions of choice selections from the international theater canon–revives this show, which was initially presented in Al Hanger Theater in 2003. While Iraqi author Qassem Mohamed, who also translated the text, helmed the original Arabic production, the troupe’s co-founder, Hany El-Metenawy, directs this version.

El-Metenawy and set designers Abd El Salam Kamel and Amr Tolba split the stage in two with a walkway that extends into the audience’s seating area, which the actors utilize when the show heats up and they feel impelled to confront viewers in an uncomfortably direct fashion. For the most part, however, a divided cast occupies either half of the performance space. Their simple costumes and props clearly visible on the hangers behind them, the two ‘teams’ take turns telling the overlapping parallel stories.  

The primary story revolves around a man so anxious to secure employment he takes a job as a security dog guarding a factory for $1/day. His neighbor, equally desperate and green with envy, gets lucky and lands a job at a meat processing plant for “the highest wage in the third world”–$5000/month. As the stories progress, commenting boldly and overtly on the regions troubled socio-politics, the guard ‘dog’ suffers increasing humiliations, from a “normalized” relationship with his new kennel to a wife that refuses to bear his child for fear of birthing a pup. The neighbor, bowing to corporate greed to secure his position, ignores his wife’s moral tirades, and eventually promotes cannibalism as a measure to cut costs.

What’s most surprising is how effective the show is given what can only be described as the troupe’s impoverished resources–a polystyrene foam disc with the word ‘moon’ written on it and a few leafy branches help up by one of the actors to convey a romantic moonlit night is the extent of the gimmickry employed. A few minutes into the show, however, once the audience has accepted that they are in for a bare, stripped-down telling of this story, the troupe’s relentlessly confident and winning energy helps communicate the narratives humor, pathos and concerns clearly. In a show that cleverly circumvents tedium by keeping the running time under an hour, the chilling repercussions of desperation and greed, adeptly stretched to comically absurdist limits, are lost to no one.

Al-Masry Al-Youm caught the show while a local first division football match was airing and had drawn viewers away from the theater, reducing the number in attendance to just over twenty. The cast persevered despite the demoralizing turnout and the absence of a cast mate–her replacement carries a script throughout the performance, and it’s a testament to the troupe’s confidence and the power of this narrative that never breaks the illusion. And while most audience members clearly looked like they were second-guessing their choice of evening entertainment when the play began, most left the show sporting unmistakably satisfied smiles. Al-Masry recommends this show to theatergoers who value troupes that, crippled by limited resources, rely on undying heart and conviction to bring life to the stage. 

Talata theater troupe’s “Stories from Third World Alleys,” based on Osvaldo Dragun’s “The Man Who Turned Into a Dog,” adapted and translated by Qassem Mohamed and directed by Hany El-Metenawy shows at Downtown’s Rawabet Theatre at 8:30PM daily until 3 June.

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