"Your Majesty, the Elephant…," Production Workshop's adaptation of Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous' political drama opens tonight. Directed by Zach Rufa '14, this version features a script recently translated from Arabic by Andrew Leber '12.
The play was written in 1969, a time of upheaval and transition in the Middle East. It follows the predicament of the downtrodden people of an ambiguous Middle Eastern city whose ruler dotes over his pet elephant, allowing it to go wherever it wants. It tramples stalls, damages produce and causes chaos wherever it rampages. But after the rogue elephant kills a child, the townspeople finally decide to take the issue up with the king — the play focuses on their plight.
This is the first Arabic play to be staged at PW and one of the few attempts to explore Middle Eastern theater at Brown, Leber said.
Leber approached Rufa with the project at the beginning of the summer and then translated the work over the course of a month. When rehearsals started in the fall, he worked as stage manager and was on hand to help actors with pronunciation and make changes to the translation, depending on the input of the cast and crew, Leber said.
Wannous originally wrote the play in very formal, archaic language, said Leber, but wanted to be sure the play was always accessible to audiences no matter where it was produced. Leber kept this in mind when he translated it and made the language more colloquial and comprehensible for a modern American audience.
"I have an original translation," Rufa said, "but it was not nearly as strong as the script we're working with."
Rufa also said that Wannous was concerned with keeping the audience engaged — to capture the feel of the original stagings, the PW actors interact with the audience, treating them as fellow villagers in some scenes or intimidating them as guards when they are navigating the palace.
"It's very meta-theatrical," Rufa said. "The whole room is the stage. The actors slip seamlessly from the stage into the audience because we've really tried to explore the complicit nature of the audience and what it means to be a bystander."
The set was very minimalist. Audience members were seated on benches and faced the small stage, which was empty save for two boxes, a screen and the actors. Rufa said he chose such a simple set because it allows the actors to switch locations easily and creates a sense of ambiguity.
The play was originally written for 20 to 30 actors, while this production only has 10, Rufa said.
Though Rufa cut the cast, the actors still managed to portray a convincing mob. They worked together as a cohesive unit, accurately expressing the confusion and fear of a group of citizens oppressed by a tyrannical ruler.
The first scene was particularly tense as the citizens worriedly discussed what to do about the horrific death of the child. The townspeople cried and talked over each other and the entire scene was punctuated by the wails of the dead child's mother (Korama Danquah '13) offstage.
Nicholas Morley '13 was particularly powerful as the passionate, frustrated Zakariyya — the only named character in the play — who tries to unify the frightened townspeople and finally bring the issue of the destructive elephant before the king.
The costumes were as simple as the set. A few of the women wore head scarves, but in general the actors wore modern, everyday clothing.
With regard to the setting of the play, Leber said that it was written to take place in a Middle Eastern town between the 16th and 18th centuries, but that the time and place are made ambiguous because of anachronisms.
"It's a setting we can all recognize but can't exactly place," he said.
The score of the play also reflects its undefined time setting. Alex Yuly '12, a former Herald graphics editor, composed a score that consists of modern interpretations of classic Middle Eastern folk music.
"The play contains elements that are universal today," Rufa said. "Tragedy rings true no matter when or where it takes place. … It's almost dreamlike that the actors can inhabit this ambiguity and take on these different places and times."
Rufa and Leber both agreed that the play was particularly compelling and timely because of the current upheaval in the Middle East, and its depiction of ordinary people's reactions to tragedy and hardship.
The play is quite short, but it is still effective. The ending is particularly impressive when the actors step out of character and deliver an eerily prophetic speech in unison.
"Your Majesty, the Elephant…" is simple, but moving in its timely telling of an age-old tale.