Egyptian-American Family Woes Are Familiar / by R. Sheth

October 24, 2005
By Mary Houlihan

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Parents worried about the choices made by their children -- and the affects these decisions will have on them throughout their lives -- is a common topic on the stage, as well as in film and television. But what sets Yussef El Guindi's play, "Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith," apart from the pack is the family -- an Egyptian-American clan trying to find its place in a society that is not always welcoming.

Guindi's engrossing play is receiving its world premiere in a lively, heartfelt production by Silk Road Theatre Project. The play neatly fits into Silk Road's mission to provide a venue for voices not normally heard from in the theater. In staged readings and, more recently, full productions, the company has filled a niche on the Chicago theater scene by featuring new playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds.

In Guindi's play, the intergenerational conflicts of the Fawzi family are intensified by the pull of two very different cultures. The children's lives have been infiltrated by American values, while the parents fight to find a balance with this and the traditional values they hold dear.

Kamal and Mona Fawzi (Vincent P. Mahler and Irit Levit) immigrated to America 25 years ago. They settled in Southern California and have a good life, thanks to Kamal's business as a rug importer. It is a loving, nurturing family until one explosive day when their three college-age children challenge them at every turn with pronouncements about faith, sexuality and commitment.

The three siblings don't set out to be rebels, but each in his or her own way wants to break down a cultural barrier. Tawfiq (a tightly acerbic stand by Kareem Bandealy) has declared that he no longer believes in God; Hamza (a sensitive and tortured Anil Hurkadli) announces that he is gay, and Huwaida (a perfectly calibrated and very funny Monica Lopez) backs out of an arranged marriage to Murad (a calmly understated Adam Bute), who has traveled from Egypt to meet her.

This is a family as messed up as the next; it's all too much for a father to take. "Being a Muslim in this country is too difficult," laments Kamal. "Suddenly I find myself in a new family with new rules." Mona, the more understanding half, whose mind is open to understanding her children's conflicts, works as a peacemaker, sweetly cajoling her husband to take it easy.

As the sometimes predictable story unfolds (the ending is a little too perfect), El Guindi asks questions about what it means to be Muslim in an overwhelmingly Christian country. At times, he glosses over deep philosophical discussions with a soap opera-sitcom veneer, but that's not a bad thing when kept within boundaries. El Guindi finds a workable balance between sharp humor and head-banging angst, which shapes his story effectively.

Like many other shows this season on other small stages, the acting talent is phenomenal. Director Stuart Carden has gathered a fine cast of unknown actors and pulled from them superb performances -- especially Mahler and Levit, who are convincingly real as they confront the future of their family while also trying to hold onto their faith and culture. Also, Jen Albert is laugh-out-loud funny as H.D., the woman who haunts the hilarious and telling dreams of both Huwaida and her intended, Murad.

In the end, "Ten Acrobats" makes the playing field even. There are no extremists here, just an American family trying to create its version of the American Dream. And that, too, is a universal theme, something all can identify with, no matter what religion or background we come from.

NEW SPACE: Silk Road Theatre Project, now starting its fourth season, is well on its way to establishing itself as an important up-and-coming theater aimed at a diverse audience. The company has developed a thriving partnership with the First United Methodist Church in the Loop, where it performs in a small theater on the building's second floor. In the spring, with the help of the church, it will inaugurate a new 99-seat flexible theater space, which will push Silk Road into the next phase of establishing itself as part of a new, burgeoning chapter in Chicago theater.