All Happy Families are Unhappy / by R. Sheth

November 10, 2005
By Kristin Gehring

Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith is a new play by Yussef El Guindi, currently in production by Silk Road Theatre Project at the Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington St. It is intelligent, consummately entertaining, and smartly produced. It lacks only a re-working of its last scene to provide a truly memorable evening of theater.

El Guindi’s play concerns a Muslim family who emigrated several decades ago from Egypt to the United States. Kamal Fawzi is a successful rug salesman, living with his wife, Mona, in a comfortable home with their three young adult children. As the play begins, domestic crises start to rock the family peace in rapid succession, starting with son Tawfiq’s refusal to kneel and pray with the other men at the mosque. Tawfiq has decided he is an atheist, he declares to his mortified father.

Next to upset her father is Huwaida, a university student. Smart as a whip and talking twice as fast, the outspoken Huwaida has so far acquiesced to her parents’ plan for her arranged marriage to the son of a family friend in Egypt. What Huwaida does to cause her father to explode is to appear in public, not only without her headscarf, but in a sleeveless, low-cut top and a miniskirt. The outfit is an abomination to the Muslim faith, according to her father.

But these traumas are nothing compared to what comes next to dumbfound poor Mr. Fawzi. The family gets a call from the police, who have arrested the second Fawzi son, the quiet and obedient Hamza, for fornicating in the bushes with another man.

These are problems that would challenge any family anywhere—of any religion. What distinguishes Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith from a television sitcom is the intelligence and humor applied by the playwright and the production team.

Silk Road Theatre Project hopes to promote its production by virtue of the timeliness of its subject matter. And, indeed, there could be no better time to present a Muslim-American family in all the detail of its daily life, with all its dirty laundry exposed. That laundry contains no weapons of mass destruction, after all—just the painful tearing away of the tissue of tradition that binds a tribe together.

The acting in the production is excellent. Vincent P. Mahler somehow manages to maintain sympathy for the red-faced, puffing patriarch, Kamal Fawzi. As Tawfiq, Kareem Bandealy is sharp and sarcastic in his impatience with old-fashioned custom. Monica Lopez is a standout as Huwaida, as assertive and articulate as she is passionate. As Hamza, the closeted homosexual, Anil Hurkadli creates a disturbing knot of confused conflict, unwilling to accept a sexual orientation that is utterly condemned by his faith.

What lifts the style of the play above the prosaic is its irreverent dream segments, headlined by "H.D." Provocatively played by the compelling Jen Albert, H.D. is Huwaida’s doppelganger, who first appears to us in a dream of Huwaida’s in which she is participating in a beauty pageant, clad in a provocative one-piece bathing suit, high heels and a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. Also in the dream are four burka-clad Muslim women, nicely choreographed as they whisper and exclaim in horror at H.D.’s iniquitous behavior.

When Huwaida visits a psychologist to help her interpret her recurring dream, she is distressed to find that the therapist will not discuss her dream without asking Huwaida to examine her feelings about wearing a headscarf.

In the most intriguing scene of the play, the therapist, played with incisive self-possession by Mary Ann de la Cruz, struggles with herself over treating a Muslim woman as a patient without tackling the oppression to women prevalent in the Muslim religion.

Another dream sequence is visited upon Murad, the young Egyptian man to whom Huwaida has been promised by her parents. Huwaida labels Murad a geek, an assessment which was undercut in the performance I saw by the handsome understudy for the role, Adam Bute, who plays the role of Murad as attentive, patient, and appreciative of Huwaida’s fiery intelligence. Murad’s dream is a wonderful sequence involving a very small suitcase and an over-eager bomb squad—triggered, no doubt, by his recent airline flight from Egypt to America.

Having given us an attractive cast of characters with a convincing array of problems, the playwright falters at the end of the play. Will his acrobats leap from the safe territory of the past into the uncharted territory of the future?

Assembled for a meal in the last scene are the Fawzi family and their guests from Egypt: Murad’s father Aziz; Murad and Huwaida, the latter sneaking glances at Murad and apparently beginning to rethink her refusal of him; the smoldering renegade Tawfiq and the humiliated Hamza, with mother Mona (the attractive Irit Levit) bustling around and trying to keep the peace, as she does throughout the play. Kamal is offstage, still stewing in his cauldron of outrage.

Does it matter that we know how Kamal manages to overcome his fury at his children and his fear for his faith? Maybe not, for we are not given a clue as to what changes him. But when Kamal rejoins the group, his ire has abated, and he shows signs of softening.

At this point, Huwaida’s dream double reappears and, unseen by the assembly, places a bouquet of flowers on a table—blessing the proceedings like a domestic goddess of the hearth. Then she turns her back to the audience and watches the family. What will happen next?

At the end of Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, nobody seems poised to undertake any great leaps, except perhaps for the small compromises that enable a family to hold together as its members grow in different directions. Perhaps it is more important, after all, that we span the gaps of understanding between us with daily acts of forgiveness and compromise, than that we gird ourselves for death-defying acts of public might.

Expert direction by Stuart Carden receives elegant treatment by a team of crack designers, including scenic designer Matthew Morton, the terrific Kurt Ottinger on lighting, effective sound design by Robert Steele, and just-right costumes by Aly Greaves.