October 27, 2005
By Chris Jones
Its tongue in its youthful institutional cheek, Silk Road Theatre Project refers to the inexplicably titled Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith as "the Muslim 'Fiddler on the Roof.' Without the music."
That's hardly the case — the contemporary Muslim family in this new play by the Egyptian-born, British-raised, Seattle-based scribe Yussef El Guindi has left its equivalent of Anatevka. But if you needed a further reminder that second-generation immigrants tend to liberalize, move away from their parents' cultural conservatism and adopt the secular habits of their new home, then this skillfully crafted and enjoyable domestic play is here to provide it.
The appeal of Ten Acrobats is that while we've seen parents of innumerable ethnicities throw up their hands in horror at their kids, we've rarely seen Muslim characters do so. That's because — in the Chicago theater, at least — we rarely see plays with Muslim characters. And if we do, they're usually some kind of exotic cameo. This omission is less egregious in the British theater — which recently has turned up several decent Muslim plays. But among American theaters, even a conventionally structured and thoroughly conventional play about an Egyptian family struggling to reconcile tradition and progress can be called a radical event.
For all of those reasons, this world premiere at Silk Road is a cheering indication that this company — hosted by enlightened Methodists at the Chicago Temple — is becoming important. And for all the formulaic failings of the script, the director Stuart Carden offers a lively, well-paced production with a group of performances just honest enough to overcome the predictability of their characters' fates.
El Guindi certainly works according to established formulas. He does so quite well — you could imagine William Morris signing this guy up to work on TV pilots. But one wishes he'd deviate more from the well-made play.
Here, we meet a family wherein the adult children are angst-ridden. One son is gay — maybe. One son is losing his faith in Islam — maybe. And the only daughter is ditching the veil for a more liberated view of sexuality and feminism — maybe.
By the end of the play, the predictably affronted papa must learn a more tolerant view of his kids, with the help of the ever-sympathetic mama and a friend who argues that religious belief cannot exclude tolerance and parental love. This we can see coming an hour before it happens. If there's one thing here that really must be fixed, it's the pat ending.
All that said, Ten Acrobats has its charms. El Guindi allows his characters some quirks and some darkly funny dream sequences (which make up the play's best material). And there's one very savvy performance from Monica Lopez (as the deviant daughter), who captures the right blend of truth and farce. Elsewhere, the acting is more predictable.
You can call this play populism, "Over the Tavern"-style. It's warm, inclusive, commercial, and disinclined to push the envelope. Why should it? It's a Muslim family comedy. There's precious little competition.