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Al Hakim's cockroaches reach California.

Cockcroaches are among the earth's oldest living creatures and have been a nuisance to humans since housekeeping began, writes Pat McDonnell Twair. They may seem curious subjects on which to base a play but not for Tewfik al Hakim, renowned as Egypt's foremost author until his death in 1987 at the age of 89.

Tewfik al Hakim wrote his three-act play, Fate of a Cockroach, in 1956 during a time of severe censorship in Egypt. The satirical comedy was set at an unspecified time in an unnamed country where public office is an avenue to privilege and where cockroaches (symbolising Egypt?) are too disorganised to defend themselves against much smaller militant ants (Israel?)

The United States premiere of the play was recently staged at the University of California Los Angeles under the direction of Professor Beverly Robinson. The performances were the culmination of a 10 year dream to produce Al Hakim's masterpiece for American audiences.

"Most Americans are naive about Arab writers and the fact that some of the finest pieces of world literature come from the Middle East," Professor Robinson said. The ideal way to expose Americans to the Arab world and to another level of consciousness, she decided, was to stage Fate of a Cockroach.

The UCLA production - one of eight offered by the UCLA Theatre Department during its 1992-93 season - marked the first time all three acts have been performed together. Yet it seems incongruous that the micro world of insects in Act I could be performed alone without contrasting it to the human perspectives of Acts II and III.

In 1983, while on leave from her faculty position at UCLA, Professor Robinson visited Al Hakim several times a week over a two-month period and discussed the possibility of producing the play in the United States. He accepted the project with great enthusiasm.

Costumes and set designs of the student production are worthy of any Broadway show. More than two months were invested in sewing costumes created by student Roz Moore. The most fantastic are the amber and cinnamon hued cockroach ensembles combining sequins, feathers, shells, and mirrors with chiffon, velvet and quilted fabrics. Masks, face paint and long red antennae enhance the cockroach "look" perfected by the actors' jerky head and leg movements.

Moore's black and dappled grey ant costumes replete with antennaed heads and insect tails are ingenious. And it is only at UCLA that the ants took on a "Soul Train" attitude as they stomped in rhythmic unison up a ladder and across the stage. Professor Robinson likened their movements to those of Zar theatre in Egypt.

Another unique Robinson touch was the use of traditional shadow puppets in the form of ants moving across a giant screen. Al Hakim's script calls for only one subject cockroach, when four students applied for the role, Professor Robinson gave them Al Hakim's lines and asked them to come up with a solution.

The aspiring actresses innovated one of the major hits of the show. The set for Act I consists of a four metre by two metre bar of Egyptian soap bearing Arabic writing and the impression of a Sphinx, the massive leg of an antique bathtub and open pipes from which the cockroaches crawl on stage.

The tall, self-appointed King Cockroach speaks in bass tones as he stomps his bejewelled sceptre and frets over the danger posed by his age old enemies, the ants. His queen, cowardly Minister, Priest and Servant bemoan the loss of the Minister's son who has been murdered and carried off by the ants. It is suggested that if 20 cockroaches were to assemble in a line they could destroy an entire battalion of ants.

The cockroaches admit they are quite different from ants and are not disciplined as their enemy is. "How many generations would it take before we cockroaches could be trained to walk in columns?" sighs the King.

The failure of humans to understand the language of insects or to communicate with one another is the focus of Acts II and III. Al Hakim also strikes a universal chord with the battle of the sexes.

Designer Moore created colour-coordinated costumes for human actors wearing apricot-hued galibiyahs, and persimmon and gold kaftans. The star of the show is Jezabel Montero cast as the domineering housewife, Samia. The fun begins when she catches sight of the King cockroach trapped in her bathtub. Within minutes, Samia is certain her henpecked husband, Adil, has lost his common sense when he becomes preoccupied with the determination of an insect who endlessly climbs up the side of the tub only to fall back.

American audiences rapidly caught the humour of the situation as the domineering wife tries to cover-up for her husband's preoccupation with the indomitable cockroach when his boss phones.

Judging by the reaction of the Los Angeles audiences, the United States is ready for further injections of Arab literature. As Professor Robinson points out the medium of theatre, especially the genre so well explored by craftsmen such as Tewfik al Hakim, serve the dual roles of entertaining while also raising awareness of a new and different culture.
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Title Annotation:Egyptian author Tewfik al Hakim's play entitled Fate of a Cockroach
Author:Twair, Pat McDonnell
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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