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Play that confronts double standards.

Summary: Zoukak Theater Company's latest play "The Jokers," premiered in Lebanon Saturday, the first work to be performed in Zoukak's new space, which opened last week.

BEIRUT: Zoukak Theater Company's latest play "The Jokers," premiered in Lebanon Saturday, the first work to be performed in Zoukak's new space, which opened last week. Directed by Zoukak's Junaid Sarieddeen and Omar Abi Azar, the show addresses Arab society's attitudes to themes of gender, sexuality and morality, as animated by the interaction of three characters backstage at a theater-cum-brothel.

"The Jokers" begins with the trio sitting backstage, bickering and insulting each other in the dark, while a guitarist (Khodor Ellaik) performs for an audience of several wigged mannequin heads arranged on a table.

The lights come up and we meet Gigi (Sarieddeen), a transvestite, the macho prostitute Jamlieh (Lamia Abi Azar) and Vicky (Maya Zbib), a scarred-faced diva who is heavily pregnant out of wedlock.

"The Jokers" was co-written and devised by Zoukak and had its world premiere last October in Bordeaux within the Festival International des Arts de Bordeaux MAaAaAeA@tropole (FAB

Founded in 2006, Zoukak was co-created by a group of theatrically minded friends who wanted to confront pressing issues through performance. Their work with marginalized groups and drama therapy has won them many awards, such as the 2017 Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists from the Japan Art Association.

Sarieddeen's transformation into a woman is well executed, with a sparkly pink dress, prosthetic curves and a large red wig, lending well to the actor's swaying gait, dance moves and soft voice.

By contrast, Lamia's portrayal of a tomboy sex worker is achieved through slicked back short hair, crude mannerisms and black leather attire.

The characters are rejected by society, which deems them abnormal or sinful. Despite their jovial declarations of not caring what others think, self-loathing seeps through as they joke about how each will commit suicide in the end, or how their prospective children would kill or shun them if they knew the truth.

While not confirmed, it is hinted that Gigi might be the father of Vicky's baby, which creates hostility between her and Jamileh, who seems infatuated with Gigi.

As Gigi and Jamileh turn their attention to Vicky's bulging belly, there are equal amounts hope and fear for the child to come. Gigi likens illegitimate children to Frankenstein's monster -- marked by society as devil spawn, expected to be born with disfigurement or the face of an animal.

The characters' dreams for a better future are voiced via a scene detailing their hypothetical wedding. Vicky asks Gigi to marry her, more out of convenience as a father for the child.

Gigi jokes that he would rather be the bride and that, should he get married, it would be a charade. Jamlieh says that that would suit her just fine. Gigi could wear a dress and she could wear a suit, since she was more likely to attack a prospective groom that get married traditionally.

In the end they link arms and walk down the aisle together, having decided that they would be each other's family and would raise the child as one, with Vicky humming a wedding march.

The unborn child plays a central part to the trio's re-evaluation of their lives and also symbolizes the child of a collective society, persecuted even before birth. The characters represent stereotypes used as scapegoats for society's issues -- the problems of which are blamed on those that do not conform to their conventions.

The players imagine their nonexistent children becoming successful and wealthy, distant but one day searching for them and returning to accept them as they are.

Vicky's son is born -- depicted by the guitarist wearing a horse's head -- and represents the offspring of all those who are judged. One by one, the characters remove their makeup and costumes (and their defenses), stripping down to their underwear.

They make their way to the theater stage and pose proudly as the table of mannequin heads is turned around by the son of judgment to reveal many are wearing animal masks. They are society's hypocrites, who judge without knowledge and hide their own wrongs by blaming others.

"The Jokers" does not have answers but rather leaves viewers to reflect upon their own lives, and whether others would judge them as harshly, based on their outward appearance or actions.

The play leaves much for the audience to infer, giving hints but never confirming the intended meaning, allowing the viewers to leave with their own understanding of what's transpired. There is no happy ending. Jokes aside, the performance is dark and thought provoking.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Dec 19, 2017
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