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French Version

Taking expression into uncharted territory

Tunisian play stresses impossibility of communication in an environment riddled with tradition, religion, censorship

What is the function of theater with respect to religion, culture, politics and society? Is it only to distract and entertain the public? Or is it to expose and change politics and society?

With a heated discussion over the present state of Tunisian theater, Tunisian actor, playwright and director Taoufik Jebali begins his latest production, "Ici Tunis" ("Here in Tunis"), which takes its title from the sentence usually used to begin radio programs and news broadcasts in Tunisia.

After that opener, Jebali's play sinks swiftly into a hilarious but poignant display of Tunisian life through the portrayal of a "typical" Tunisian family, set in a framework which closely resembles that of popular sitcoms.

"Ici Tunis" ran for four nights at the Theatre Monot in Beirut, closing on Sunday, as part of a theater festival of sorts unfolding through out the month of March. The program includes the highly anticipated "To Hell with Meryl Streep," based on the book by Rashid al-Daif and directed for the stage by Nidal Achkar, which opens tonight at Masrah al-Madina.

For two hours, Jebali's actors and actresses abuse every available form of expression, from vocal interruptions to hysterical movements, accentuating the impossibility of communicating in an environment overloaded with tradition, religion and censorship.

In Jebali's world, each of these elements is an imposition on daily life. In one scene, a heated yet incoherent conversation is abruptly halted by the sound of a muezzin. The arguing characters suddenly take on expressions of oppression.

Throughout "Ici Tunis," the characters wrestle with the fear that in the most intimate moments of their lives, they will be intruded upon by the political regime, censored or taken by force. This fear turns into chaos, foreclosing any rational attempt to lend meaning to what the characters are saying or doing. At one point, this tension erupts into destruction, as the actors on stage begin throwing chairs violently in all directions.

"Ici Tunis" also has moments of striking intimacy. Jebali brings his audience in close proximity with the rawest details of Tunisian life, such as when his actors approach the front edge of the stage to perform the ritual of washing their underwear in a hamam, or public bath.

In a way, Jebali's play is deconstructive. It takes apart all ceremonial aspects of intense joy and intense sorrow in portraying the absurdity of "being Tunisian." The decor is so basic that it turns the stage into a construction site. The events in the play also follow an apparently broken thread.

"Ici Tunis" culminates in the mimetic annihilation of Tunisia's social and cultural structure, after the hysterical repetition of the motto "these are our customs and traditions" on stage.

But while Jebali challenges the status quo in all forms, he doesn't really bring anything new to the debate, neither in terms of theatrical techniques, nor in those of social, cultural or political alternatives.

Taoufik Jebali returns to the Beirut stage Thursday for a three-night run of "Les Voleurs de Baghdad," with the Compagnie Teatro de Tunis. For more information, contact the Tournesol theater at +961 1 381 290

Beirut 06-03-2006
Raed El Rafei
The Daily Star

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