Titling a show FUNNY A Trunk Show is perhaps somewhat daring, if not theatrical wishful thinking. Some people’s funny is other people’s camp. So it’s a good thing that Denmo Ibrahim’s one-woman show, just opened in the FRIGID New York Festival, knows what it is about, and blithely transcends its title.
On a minimally furnished stage in the basement level theater at Under St. Marks, Ibrahim appears in character as Mohamed Hosni, corpulent, middle-aged, mustachioed, bespectacled Egyptian American, patiently waiting on line to renew his passport. Arriving on stage with a dour, all-encompassing overcoat and suitcases in either hand, we both see and feel the weight of Mohamed’s life as he inches forward in the imaginary line, sweatily yanking at his collar and fanning himself with a handful of forms. Ibrahim’s mouth pulls down into a sour expression of physical discomfort and her eyes peer out over the audience as Mohamed assesses the people around him. The voice, when it comes, bears no trace of the physical drudge we see. “They might at least put in a fan,” he remarks engagingly to no one in particular, openly ready for conversation.
And in seconds Ibrahim has established her character and melted the invisible wall between performer and audience. Mohamed – “call me Mo” – starts to speak, opening up about his experience with the passport office. “Do you know how many times this makes it?” he directs at one audience member. “Go on, guess.” “Guess again.” It is, of course, far too many times. We have all had to endure something like this, so we’re all on Mo’s side, but there does seem to be something exceptional, not right, about the number of times he’s been trying to get his simple passport renewal effected.
The play is set in 1983. As his wide-eyed litany of incredulous complaint is interrupted when the passport functionary calls him, we observe what a genial, polite citizen he is, even as more requests for additional forms are passed his way and the indignity of petty bureaucracy rains heavily down on him. Politely he obeys each request, inwardly fuming, but enthusiastically he wants to regale us, his listeners, with the story of his life, emigrating from Egypt with a young wife and a heartful of dreams. Amusingly, openly he gradually unburdens himself to us as the overcoat comes off, the suitcases get stowed, and, eventually, opened.
Mo is an absorbing recounter of his own story, comical in his imitation of others, crafty in his observation of details, jubilant in the personal victories his early life has delivered. But as more forms are continually requested his energy wanes, and less salutary chapters emerge – family issues of disappointment, anxiety, and dread. The effortless bonhomie cracks and urgency builds in the quest for the passport. The suitcases he has been carrying his carefully organized paperwork in, hold other things, and subtly the contents are rendered as memories, episodes, individuals. Like most of us Mo is unable to speak the final truth about his own story, but Ibrahim and collaborators have brought off, for all its physical explosiveness, a delicately wrought denouement, which sees him retreating from the stage, wordlessly clutching a suitcase to his chest, his shredded dignity heart-rendingly resonating before us.
Obviously a work of great personal passion, and developed over time, Ibrahim’s play offers her an opportunity to shine in characterization of a deeply felt, however comically pitched, performance. There is a fine meshing of the tragic and the comic here, and subtle storytelling gives much to review and digest in aftermath. To call it simply a tour de force would be to sell it short, a bit like finally titling the show FUNNY A Trunk Show. Highly recommended.
A trunk show
Presented by Denmo Ibrahim San Francisco, CA
UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place) $15 Thu 2/24 @ 9pm, Sat 2/26 @ 5:30pm, Sun 2/27 @ 5:30pm, Tue 3/1 @ 7:30pm, Sat 3/5 @ 1pm, & Sun 3/6 @ 4pm
FRIGID New York Festival 2011 will run February 23-March 6 at The Kraine Theater & The Red Room (85 East 4th Street between 2nd Ave and Bowery) and UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1sr Ave and Ave A). Tickets ($10-$16) may be purchased online at www.FRIGIDnewyork.info or by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444. All shows will run 60 minutes long or less.