On 2 August, the Alumni Community Theatre (ACT) gave its first performance of El-Aragoz Diaries, a play that brings a nearly forgotten Egyptian folkloric puppet clown known as El-Aragoz to life. The play - with real people on a real stage - exposes the funny character's daily life, interactions with his wife, friend and porter.
ACT is a professional, independent, cultural organisation formed by the alumni of the American University in Cairo (AUC) for the purpose of creating theatre that serves the community. The play will be performed - in Arabic - in different venues across Cairo during Ramadan.
"It all started with an idea which is to transform the Aragoz puppet show into a play performed by real people," Nermine Said told Ahram Online. Said graduated from the AUC, theatre department, is the costume designer and also wrote El-Aragoz Diaries.
"This is my first writing experience. I've been asked by Alaa Shalaby, the director, and Leila Saad, the art director, to write this play because they know that my master degree’s research is about documenting El Aragoz theatre in Cairo," Said continued.
Director Alaa Shalaby told Ahram Online that he wanted to present El-Aragoz to the audience in an unexpected way. "Many people know El-Aragoz as a puppet show, while our performance is based on actors. It is yet another way of introducing El-Aragoz to the audience, since, surprisingly there are some people who are not acquainted with this iconic character."
The original Aragoz is a street theatre and its set is usually very simple. "We kept the simplicity; El-Aragoz Diaries consists of a wooden box, a pillow and a broom used as slapstick. Because the performance is adaptable we are able to move around with it. It is challenging at times, depending on the place," Shalaby continues.
Every character has something very distinctive, especially the protagonist El-Aragoz, which had blushed cheeks like the original wooden puppet design. Nafousa, El-Aragoz's wife, was caricaturised by the uni-brow and oversized bottom.
Aragoz always has problems and by pointing to them, we find a reflection of similar issues real people experience. Accordingly, Aragoz helps us find solution to them.
El-Aragoz Diaries is a 30 minute sketch with the characters known in the original Aragoz. "The moral of the play is simply remembering our cultural heritage. We made sure to use proper language taking into consideration children in the audience," Said added.
Right before the opening of performance at the Diwan bookstore in Heliopolis, the electricity went off, yet the organisers decided to continue selling tickets and seating the attendees in the dark. Fortunately, the electricity shortage did not last long and soon the troupe was able to begin the evening. An ACT member played recorded folkloric songs preparing the audience for the show. In his opening words, Shalaby stressed that the troupe aims at reproducing Aragoz folkloric heritage by introducing children to it while nourishing adults' childhood memories.
There weren't many children in the Diwan Heliopolis performance audience, yet it was apparent that the adults enjoyed the show with the same enthusiasm, eagerly following the play that narrates El-Aragoz's story where the character (Ahmed Farid) goes into endless arguments with his wife, Nafousa (Aya Hassan), El-Aragoz's friend (Sherif Saad El-Daly) and Idris, the porter (Mohamed Sarhan).
Two young girls sat on the ground in front of the "stage" and were taken by El-Aragoz and his quarrels with Nafousa, bursting into laughter when El-Aragoz slapped his friend, wife or porter's bottom with his slapstick. The presentation of humorous daily interactions left the audience waiting for more.
According to Shalaby, ACT's Friday show at Cheeky Chimps in Zamalek was attended by around twenty children, between six and seven years old. "Seated in the front row, the children enjoyed the show, especially the slapstick part," Shalaby comments.
The playwright said that she would continue writing while concentrating on Aragoz's art theatre in specific. "This art form gives space for criticising negative social and political issues through the protagonist," Said added.
"There are so many ideas I have in mind for the future regarding El-Aragoz, but, I'm waiting to get people's feedback first and then start thinking about my next step," Shalaby concluded.
Sunday, 5 August, 8:30pm
AUC Downtown Campus, Oriental Hall, 113 Qasr Al-Aini Street, Cairo
Wednesday, 8 August, 9:30pm
City View, Km 19, Cairo-Alex Desert Road
Thursday, 9 August, 8:30pm
Cheeky Chimps, 60 Rd.9, Maadi, Cairo
Friday, 10 August, 8:30pm
Kids Makan, 5 Rd. 259, New Maadi, Cairo
Saturday, 11 August, 9:30pm
Diwan Bookstore, 105 Abu Bakr El Seddiq St., Heliopolis, Cairo
Sunday, 12 August, 8:30pm
AUC New Campus, New Cairo
Monday, 13 August, 9:30pm
Darb 1718, Kasr el shamaa St., behind Hanging Church, Old Cairo