Abdel-Baqi Burlesque Company Creates a Theatrical Renaissance in Egypt:
Mona F. Hashish
After the 25th of January Revolution, plays that treated the revolution had short runs for being politically sensitive, and those that discussed foreign issues from the world drama commercially fail and were disinteresting for the Egyptian audiences. The Egyptian funny man Ashraf Abdel Baqi (1962- ) has succeeded in creating a theatrical renaissance in Egypt in the Post-revolution Period. Abdel Baqi made a scratch group out of amateurs like Ali Rabie, Mostafa Khater, Mohamed Osama, Israa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Anwar. He has trained them to act modern burlesques that reflect recent events in Egypt. The actors are too spontaneous to be able to interact directly with the audiences.
In 2013, Al-Hayat free-to-air Channel accepted to produce Abdel Baqi’s burlesques which are written and directed by Nader Salah El-Deen. The company was named ‘Theatro Masr’ at that time. For two seasons, the company plays were performed on Masr University stage in the 6th of October City, then broadcasted on Al-Hayat Channel to win wider viewers and gain future audiences. Because of production problems, Abdel Baqi Company moved to MBC free-to-air Channel, and changed its name into ‘Masrah Masr’. Since then, the burlesques are running on Grand Hayat Hotel in Cairo City. They achieve an unprecedented success. Audiences of all ages rush to watch them on stage because they have good sense of humor and reflect recent issues.
It goes without saying that Abdel Baqi and his company have revived the burlesque, an unjustly neglected dramatic form of comedy. He encourages theatre goers to revisit the theatre happily. He is personally made the top matinee idol for being the lead comic of the burlesque stars.
In that light, Abdel Baqi has made the burlesque tradition popular in Egypt. Middle-class theatre-goers return to watch live plays, and book tickets few weeks before each performance. After long years of political unrest and lack of safety, they have broken the fear barrier and restored their cultural activities. Like all modern kinds of comedy, the audiences interact with the performance and go out relaxed and happy. They bear a kind of CATHARSIS.
Burlesque, in specific, is a tradition of dramatic satire, which has turned in vogue nowadays in the whole world. It causes laughter by caricaturing a serious issue. Abdel Baqi’s company makes social and political criticism. Its goal is to spoof and titillate, not to offend. For example, he knows burlesques are meant to mock any celebrity, but he is keen on avoiding vulgarity and obscenity. He is culturally sensitive, and is aware that such things would arouse contempt, not appraisal. Though indecency and striptease are features of international burlesques, Abdel Baqi disallows them for being culturally offensive. Once, Abdel Baqi apologized in the media when he had received blame from Mortada Mansour, Head of Zamalik Sport Club in Cairo for mocking Zamalik Football team.
Abdel Baki’s burlesques achieve their intended effect and cause much laughter because the Egyptian audiences share the subject of ridicule with the actors. They stand on common ground and share the same culture. For example, in What Got Me Here?, the actor Aly Rabie parodizes Abdul-Halim Hafez songs, wearing the required wig and attire. Moreover, the play The Alleged Criminals Line Display in specific criticizes the people’s false accusations of policemen, indirectly calls people to be tolerant. Egypt has suffered from security vacuum since the policemen were attacked by the revolutionaries in 2011. That is why, the playwright Nader Salah El-Deen wants to restore trust and order in the police department. Monkeys’ Methods is another play that is full of farce, caricature, acrobats, songs, pastiche and dancing. The playwright employs circus people, flashbacks and expressionistic monologues. The circus manager Athama develops his circus by giving chance to the young generation to show their talents. In Social Media, poor tenants collaborate to pay the debt of their poor neighbor Aref before he goes to jail. The play highlights social integration which is real as opposed to social media that is sometimes false and deceiving. All Masrah Masr’s plays end in epigrams, and sounds instructive.
Masrah Masr performs all its plays on a traditional proscenium stage with three-dimensional areas for acting. Nader Salah El-Deen adopts the Brechtian technique in all the company’s plays. He breaks the fourth wall of the stage by making the characters interact directly with the audience, and using metatheatre by reminding the audiences that the characters are just actors performing drama. He stimulates the audiences’ consciousness in order not to be taken by the action and live in dramatic illusion. There is no change of scene. The sets draw no attention to themselves or are away from the acting. Everything depicted on stage is functional and relevant to the themes. Pictorial sets and electric lighting create each atmosphere in every play. For example, a roof with two rooms of poor accommodation and a shared toilet is the permanent setting of Social Media, and a police department hall is the setting of The Alleged Criminals Line Display. In each performance, the curtain which spans the proscenium arch is used only to screen the stage before the start of the play; once raised, it did not fall again until the end.
I believe the secret beyond the success of Ashraf Abdel Baqi’s company is its devotion to work, choice of talented young actors working under the lead of experienced playwright and director, treatment of realistic problems sensitively, employment of modern experimental techniques, and use of elevated humor and unoffending irony. Despite the simple traditional staging, Masrah Masr attracts several audiences and turns popular in Egypt.