November 9, 2005
By Louis Weisberg
The immigrant experience in America is ideal fodder for writers. Teeming with cultural conflicts and existential crises, it’s an experience that demands introspection and change from its characters. From "My Antonia" to "Flower Drum Song," authors and playwrights have tossed centuries of hardboiled ethnic traditions into the melting pot and watched them simmer.
With "Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith," playwright Yussef El Guindi takes the genre to a new place—the Arab-American experience post September 11, 2001. With humor, passion and a lovely touch of whimsy, he’s created a theatrical experience that’s not to be missed.
"Ten Acrobats" follows an eventful Ramadan in the lives of Kamal, a successful Egyptian rug merchant living in Southern California, and his family. In many ways, Kamal is the Muslim cousin of Tevye, the baffled patriarch of "Fiddler on the Roof." When Kamal throws up his hands and exclaims, "Suddenly I find myself in a new family with new rules and thinking," he might have stolen the line straight from Tevye’s lips. Who knew that Arabs and Jews have the same problems at home?
But Tevye’s tsuris over his three daughters’ marriages is nothing compared with the 21st-century trials that Kamal faces. In the course of the play, he must come to terms with an atheistic son, a gay son and a daughter who rejects her arranged marriage. To a less ambitious writer, any one of these situations could have made for an entire play. El Guindi manages to weave them all together without sacrificing any of their depth. In fact, like the members of a family, these stories together become more than the sum of their parts.
Silk Road Theatre Project and director Stuart Carden have done justice to this excellent work. Led by Vincent P. Mahler, who plays Kamal with authoritarian swagger and see-through tenderness, the cast creates textured and memorable characters. This is one of those rare productions of a family drama in which the actors actually make a believable family—despite coming from a United Nations of backgrounds. What better way could there have been to reflect the universality of the human experience?