November 2, 2005
By Catey Sullivan
There's a subtle, distinctive rhythm to the speech of the Egypt-born characters of Yussef El Guindi's compelling drama Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith.
The words are absolutely understandable, yet they hint - with understated grace - at intricacies beneath the surface and create a dialogue as layered as the threads of a hand-woven carpet. It's the gorgeous, unique texture found in novelist Lawrence Durrell's brilliant "The Alexandria Quartet" and Khaled Hosseini's deserving best-seller, "The Kite Runner."
It's also the nuances that immediately establish "Ten Acrobats" (the title is figurative, not literal) as a tale set in the West, but steeped in the Middle East. The beauty of this exquisite production directed by Stuart Carden for the Silk Road Theatre Project is embedded in such details of language.
The drama comes from an emotionally vivid story that captures a world of anger, joy, love and frustration as it plays out in a Muslim-American family.
The appeal lies in Guindi's ability to transcend ethnicity while still writing a rich depiction of a Muslim family living in post-9/11 United States.
"Ten Acrobats" deals with the unique conflicts of traditional Muslim parents whose U.S.-raised children are loudly questioning the ancient tradition and values of Islam. But the emotional difficulties could belong to any family of any (or no) religion.
And while "Ten Acrobats" isn't flawless, neither is it a condescending multi-culti pap ripe for adaptation as an After School Special. It is smart, challenging, poignant, whimsical and at times, delightfully silly.
The play centers on Kamal (Vincent P. Mahler) and Mona (Irit Levit), Egyptians who emigrated to the United States to raise their children, Tawfiq (Kareem Bandealy), Hamza (Anil Hurkadli) and Huwaida (Monica Lopez.)
Each of the children are facing painful conflicts between their heritage and their own beliefs and instincts. Tawfiq, enraged by the relentless onslaught of tragedy he sees throughout the world, has decided there is no God. Huwaida is having disturbing dreams about participating in beauty pageants - something that, in real life, would cause her Muslim community to shun and condemn. Hamza's troubles are rooted in a seemingly unbridgeable gap between what he feels and what Muslims are instructed is an abomination.
Then there's Huwaida's subconscious (Forest Park's Jen Albert, droll and shamelessly seductive), a brash, glamor-puss who makes her presence felt at hilariously inopportune moments.
There's not a weak link in the cast: Bandealy is infinitely charismatic, sparking with anger and intellect as a budding atheist. Lopez, as his "good Muslim" sister Huwaida, crackles with defensiveness and is laceratingly articulate, while Hurkadli's Hamza is a quiet wellspring of self-loathing and conflict. As their mother Mona, Levit embodies a deceptively soft-spoken woman whose gentle manner disguises her solid, loving ability to keep her husband in line.
With a lesser cast or playwright, the issues the drama delves - arranged marriage, God's opinion of gays, whether the Muslim religion oppresses women - could come across as contrived talking points. Instead, these thorny matters are woven into provocative conversations that sound absolutely natural.
Everything is far too neatly wrapped up in the final scene of "Ten Acrobats," but on balance, this Silk Road production is enthralling.