The one person show-- the monodrama--
is a challenging theatre form. It is a big task for the creators to fill the performance space with the body and the voice of one performer. As much as it is challenging, it can be very rewarding, when it works!
The team behind the one-woman show titled Paranoia, currently running at Hanager Arts Center until the end of May, took that challenge to heart. Veteran director Mohsen Helmy presented the text of first-time writer Rasha Faltas which takes place inside the head of a woman suffering from a mental illness.
“Paranoia” touches a few hot buttons in patriarchal society from incest, to punishing the budding sexuality of young women. The troubled text hides in the perceived confusion of a troubled mind. It is dancer, actor and director Reem Hegab who embodies the complex character at the heart of the monodrama.
Hegab has been on stage since a young age as a ballet dancer and a music performer. In addition to directing plays through Studio Malh, the theatre company she started in 2003, she has starred in a large number of performances. But for those who have seen Reem Hegab perform before, are in for a surprise.
In this rollercoaster solo performance, Helmy is able to guide the actress into heights and depths that extend her range as a performer. She transitions smoothly between different moods, and makes seemingly effortless shifts from a state of mind to an opposite one, demonstrating a great command of her emotional tools.
The director also utilises Hegab’s malleable body to fill the large stage of Hanger Theatre. With supple movements she kneels, crawls, leans back, twirls, jitters, shakes, jumps, runs up and down the ramp; she withdraws inside herself, then boldly faces the audience; she grows old and effortlessly becomes young again, performing complex movements with ease and grace.
The first time writer chose a complex topic: women’s oppression in society. She uses mental illness as a way to present the shattered psyche of the exploited woman. But while the mental condition of Paranoia is characterised by unfounded delusions of persecution, obsessive distrust of others or exaggerated self-importance, the protagonist of this mis-named performance has very good reasons to distrust others, as she suffered from molestation by her uncle.
However, the staccato movement of the play fails to create a clear coherent structure to bind the personal stories. Though this is Faltas’ first experience at playwriting, she is not new to theatre. She has been an avid follower of theatre, and participated in a large number of production and workshops at Hanager Arts Center.
Just like most first time writers, Rasha Faltas tried to include many issues into one piece. She attempts to expose the problems of patriarchal society, represent the suffering of women, portraying a complex mental illness, while depicting personal moments that shape the life of her character, and injure her psyche. The result of this accumulation of topics is that not only is the audience offered a fragmented mind of the character but also a fragmented piece.
Though the play’s only character is a woman, the male voice projected through the sound system seems to be leading the performance. The play starts with the male voice, and often the woman is responding to that voice / presence. The man (a voice that's portraying "an oppressor") is not physically presented on stage, yet he haunts the space, as well as the character’s mind.
The play does not succeed in separating between presenting the stigmas that women suffer from and adopting these stigmas. The character repeats in a mantra like: “You will take me by force.
You will take me by force. You will take me by force.” Instead of describing what the character is suffering from, soon these lines become a plea from her to the oppressor to take her by force.
Rather than condemning the oppression, this production internalises it, digests it, reproduces it, and corporally has its character embody it. The self loathing that reeks from the text is translated on stage in a literal self flagellation, as the character whips herself, punishing her body for how society sees her and treats her.
She is presented as a victim from beginning to end. She is a victim of her hallucinations, a victim of society, and a victim of offensive men.
There is a grave danger in works of art that place women in situations which forces them to internalise their oppression, and then export this image out again as a norm. Normalising the suffering and victimhood as a results recreates this position as a reality for women. It also oversimplifies “women’s issues” as revolving only around the body and sexuality, ignoring all the complex facets of women as human.
What keeps audiences engaged is the powerfully engaging presence of the solo performer. Under Helmy's direction, Hegab shines in this performance. She is very personable, and has a warm presence, even as she represents the shattered psyche of an abused and troubled woman.
If you are searching for a play about freedom, liberation, and women power, Paranoia is not for you. Yet somehow the powerful presence of this engaging, passionate, charismatic actor is life affirming none-the-less.