Arts & Events

New: Theater Reviews:'Our Enemies' & 'Red Demon'

Ken Bullock
Saturday November 12, 2016 - 10:46:00 AM

'Our Enemies' by Yussef El Guindi, a Golden Thread production, at Thick House

Golden Thread, the San Francisco-based theater company which is the first American company to focus on plays from or about the Middle East, is inaugurating its celebration of its 20th anniversary by staging the West Coast premiere of Egyptian American playwright Yussef El Guindi's satiric comedy, 'Our Enemies'--and this's the show's last weekend at the Thick House, 1695--18th Street near Connecticut, on Potrero Hill in San Francisco--info at  

El Guindi's sometimes bawdy, sometimes acid satire has been a welcome staple of Golden Thread's production history, the company having staged four other full-length and several short plays of his since their world premiere of 'Scenic Routes' in 2001, including what might've been the first Skype play in 2009, El Guindi's '' The Review,.a 20-minute acerbicly funny dialogue between an Arab-American writer and his Egyptian activist girlfriend by Skype, staged in San Francisco (directed by Hafiz Karmali) and Paris (directed by Dina Amin), complete on YouTube. Their last, a West Coast premiere of his 'Language Rooms' (directed by Evren Odcikin) in 2012 wasn't only a high point in their history of staging plays about the region, but one in recent Bay Area theatergoing.
'Our Enemies,' the script from 2008, features a complex of characters, intersecting at unpredictable angles to each other: an Egyptian-American author experiencing the first flush of success as a go-to explainer of Middle Eastern culture for the media; a wannabe writer, also Egyptian-American-turned-dirty-trickster, who resents the first writer's patronizing pose as expert; the wannabe's ex, who writes romantic fiction, resisting all readings of it that would make it reflexive of her Egyptian background; an imam of a local mosque, also Egyptian and a media talking head and his very Americanized son, on the verge of his first visit to family back "home,"and an editor, a publisher, a talking head Irish priest, a talk show host ...
Golden Thread's valiant founder, Torange Yeghiazarian, has directed a game cast--Dale Albright, Munaf Alsafi, James Asher, Denmo Ibrahim, Kunal Prasad, Annemaria Rajala and Salim Razawi--in El Guindi's wry examination of cultural and sexual identities in flux, often in parallel, though flying not in formation, but in different directions ...
Asher, as the nebbishy Gamal, wannabe writer and activist, and Ibrahim as his artistically committed and savvy ex, Noor, shine onstage. Asher has played similar characters--the author's alter ego, it seems--in other El Guindi plays with the same signature, quirky comic brilliance. Ibrahim, who is a founding member of Mugwumpin and has appeared in productions by Aurora and ACT--and who's always a pleasure to see onstage--is exceptional in her portrayal of Noor's unfolding moods in expressions, gestures (often silent) and words, often very funny and always impressively expressive.
There're pointed moments of slapstick, whether in a TV studio the moment before airtime, in an alley off a New York arterial, at a publisher's cocktail party or in and out of bed at a variety of NYC apartments ... And a constant flow of conversation about books, the news, what it means to immigrate, to return home, to try to make it in the marketplace--to crash and burn as a commercial writer or a politically aware one ...and the infighting of an underdog group among themselves, either jockeying for position, for an ideological edge--or personal or artistic autonomy.
'Our Enemies' obliquely illustrates with these contemporary scenes Karl Liebknecht's famously dire warning from Germany, World war I, "The enemy is in your own country." El Guindi's characters express a sense of energy in a maze of interlocking dilemmas, personal and social. The one moment that reads as a misstep, perhaps, is at the very end, where a kind of denouement, a chance encounter turns ugly, then too violent, tagging the play as melodramatic, instead of leaving a character who's humorously confessed being changed as sprawled out in public, repeating his newly-acquired self-help mantra--"I'm on your side!"
(In 'Language Games,' produced her before, but written after 'Our Enemies,' El Guindi reaches his height with the strange, heartbreaking and ironic conclusion, a kind of muted soliloquy, half confession, half avowal of love, which touched on tragedy, something rare in contemporary theater.)
This engaging production of 'Our Enemies' is the perfect opening to Golden Thread's celebration of 20 years of true commitment to theater and community.
'Red Demon' at NOHspace
Theatre of Yugen was founded in 1979 by Yuriko Doi, at the time the only American theater company to feature the classical Japanese theater arts, tragic and comic, of Noh and Kyogen.
But Doi, who had been involved with the Tokyo underu, underground theater, in the 60s, also wanted to stage both older and modern Western and Japanese plays featuring stylized movement and production styles from Nohgaku (Noh and Kyogen) and a broader range of sources.
Going on 40 years later, 'Red Demon,' a 1997 Japanese play by Hideki Noda, as translated by Roger Pulvers, easily finds its place in the succession of classical, modern and adapted plays Yugen has produced to realize this ideology.
Nick Ishimaru, interim artistic director, found 'Red Demon' in an anthology and "was immediately captivated by ... how delightfully funny this play is ... how relevant the material is to our immediate lives ... and ... how little adaptation the script needed to be relatable to an American audience."
'Red Demon' bears some simularity to the kind of play that developed in the 60s out of the postwar "Theatre of the Absurd," using techniques from Surrealism and other avant-garde movements, often a combination of realistic and fantastic storytelling and an almost metaphysical focus on the condition and fate of humanity.
It's told like a long flashback, the action starting at the end, then restarting sequentially as an admittedly "slow-thinking" man narrates what happened to his sister who has committed suicide after being rescued with her brother and another man following a storm at sea, after a bizarre series of events in the fishing village where they're all from.
At the heart of the almost fabulous tale that materializes bit by bit onstage is the sudden appearance of a strange, manlike creature from the sea, seeming to babble gibberish, who the villagers take for a man-eating demon and intend to do in, until the brother and sister, sometimes helped (and sometimes hindered) by the village liar and would-be Don Juan, convince the others to relent--and then the sister begins to communicate with the grotesque interloper ...
The excellent cast, directed by Ishimaru, portraying all and sundry in this folktale-gone-wild is just four energized actors, three of them shifting roles like chameleons, all adept at delivering both the comedy and drama the play demands. New to Yugen are both Ayelet Firstenberg, who plays, among others, the sister (dubbed "That Woman" by the irate villagers), but also the Old Fisherman who the locals turn to for advice--and Steven Ho as Tombi (among others), the "idiot" brother.
Longtime Yugen collaborator Enormvs Muñoz, a skilled comedian and intense physical performer, plays Mizukane, the local tale-teller, with presence and deft comic timing--and Yugen principal for two decades Lluis Valls--one of the finest physical theater actors in the Bay Area, a unique performer--takes on the initially inarticulate role of the title character/creature with great skill and invention, finding unusual creative ways to communicate both the Demon's alienation and his strange sensibilities. It's a great, more than comic jolt when the Demon in an effusion of enthusiasm tries to get across just what he's there for--and his heartfelt "explanation" is both a puzzling conundrum and yet too familiar.
Production design--Yusuke Soi's scenery and props, Maximillian Urruzmendi's lighting, Kevin Sweetzer's sound and Liz Brent's costumes--compliment the ensemble's constant action and the play's unorthodox theme.
'Red Demon' fnctions theatrically as both a kind of exotic entertainment, with something close to the unsettling quality of black humor, and as a cryptic-not so cryptic moral parable of tribalism, the other and identity ... like Ishimura has said, both immediately relevant yet timeless.
At NOHspace in Project Artaud in San Francisco's Mission District through November 13. Info at