Believing the invisible: Mime fest in Cairo

Mime is a world in where not hearing and not seeing can still lead to believing. In its sixth year, Sawy’s Mime Festival aims to popularize this elusive, unpopular art form. While Saturday featured many forgettable performances, the second day was filled with pleasant surprises.

Mime is the art of portraying a character of story solely through body movement. In pantomime, no props are used. Egypt’s familiarity with this art-form has largely been restricted to the Ahmed Nabil and Hesham Abdel-Hamid, and nothing much else.

Festival manager Ahmed Ramzy finds that as a result of the fest, actors have now “increased their abilities and knowledge” in mime. Actor Mohamed Abdalla will attest to the festival’s success in this regard.

A winner in this year’s best actor category for “The Gift,” Abdalla, who has been an actor for 11 years, first thought of trying mime when he heard of the fest six years ago. The actor, who also won the same award in the third edition, said he has also been doing pantomime for three years.

“The theater stage is the first judge.” Ramzy told Daily News Egypt, adding that all groups that wanted to participate got the chance to perform at the fest. Yet, since the number has been reduced from 28 performances in the first edition to 16 this year, Ramzy said that groups have realized that they must be fine-tuned to perform onstage.

Over the dozen wordless performances at the Wisdom Hall, overlapping themes of conflicts in self-identity and relationships came through. Sadly, the presentation of these themes also overlapped, as the tug-of-war took on quite literal and simplistic form.

Much of the music was a re-hash. Many acts used the “Titanic” soundtrack to signal love, and “Mission Impossible” to allude to action. The gimmick of adding baladi-flavored tambourine-and-tabla music worked its charm every time though; audiences clapped regardless of the quality of plot or performance.

The introduction in the fest’s pamphlet as a “struggle between good and evil” is sufficient to describe “The Testament.” The symbolism was tediously obvious: the protagonist is dressed in half-black-half-white, and angels and demons from either side lure him. Among those dressed in black is a charming lip-biting temptress.

Sexuality is more overt in “Manifestations,” also featuring half-black-half-white character lured by two opposing shadows beckoning from behind lit screens. After dancing with a doll onstage, the character places her on a chair, removes his shirt and has his way with it/her.

The stage sex also had audiences divided. Some parents drew their children near and started to discipline them, while others broke into appreciative applause. Ramzy said that many audience members complained to him about the performance, adding, “It’s not in our culture.” The troupe maintained that they were faithful to the themes of their act.

“A Suspended String” featured a self-absorbed performance with the dead-beaten theme of “Palestine” suggested primarily by the presence of a Palestinian scarf and an overload of death in the act. Otherwise, all symbolism was lost, but as with any references to Palestine, the act was met with vigorous applause.

Meanwhile, harking to yet another overexploited era, “Akhenaton” featured Paranoiac dance sequences absurdly merged with break-dancing.

“A Very Emotional Day” and “Twins,” both of which feature conjoined twins, explored unity in duality. Placed on the second day, these acts were far superior to the other productions of the fest.

Ramzy found “Twins” to be of an unexpectedly superior quality, while the renowned famed actor Hamada Shoosha’s troupe production “The Dream and the Maestro” was modest in comparison. Alas, “Twins” received only a certificate of excellence.

The fest’s first prize winner was “Emotional Day.” Contesting two fully-grown conjoined men was a young boy who filled the stage with his energy, leaping around, ripping his t-shirt, and trying his charms on females in the audience.

The play also made good use of stage props. A large black rectangle which acted as a screen offered tantalizing glimpses into action. The two conjoined twins “stretched” behind the screen — one head appearing from one side, a leg stretching over the other.

“Twins” was thoroughly involving, with remarkable coordination between the otherwise mismatched (chubby and lean) duo. One of the truly pleasant surprises of the line-up, “Twins” was well-rehearsed, believable, and entertaining.

The actors’ attention to detail had audiences entranced by even the simplest routines: usage of the bathroom, shaving, changing clothes despite being joined at the side. In a comic confrontation with hustlers, one of the twins attacks by kicking the air. His kick is held by landing on its victim shoulders and his hands are frozen in kung-fu style. He rotates in the air as his twin moves around, while music suggesting action plays in background.

Another act popular with the awards was the large-cast performance “For Your Sake, My Friend.” A clown-resembling ‘alien’ with dancing abilities is captured and exploited as a curio. Just like “E.T.,” he finds a friend on Earth, and (unlike E.T.) with whom he takes endless photographs.

Simplistic nods to Charlie Chaplin, “Titanic,” and Palestine aside, the festival featured some memorable performances. The better productions did what mime does best: make an impossible and invisible world believable. Maybe, in return, the silent form of mime too will become more visible.

Originally published online at Daily News Egypt on August 5, 2010.

About CK

i sleep, i wake, i write chitra[dot]kalyani[at]gmail[dot]com
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