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Photo by Robert Catto

Lady Tabouli

National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Festival present, LADY TABOULI, by James Elazzi, at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta. 9-18th January

LADY TABOULI, is the latest work from James Elassi. Mr Elassi is a member of a Lebanese Maronite (Christian) family and its culture. All his works, that we have seen in Sydney (OMAR AND DAWN), concern themselves with the struggle of the young male (usually) struggling in the pull, on one hand , between the traditions of his culture and their demanding expectations and, on the other hand, the secret of the forbidden heritage of being a member of the abhorrent LGBTIQI community, as well.

Danny (Antony Makhlouf) has been given the responsibility by his sister, Josephine (Nisine Amina) to be the Godfather to her 8 month son. In the expensive family ‘zhuzhed’ up kitchen it is the day of the Christening and Josephine and her mother, Dana (Deborah Galanos) are meticulously (obsessively) arranging all the traditions of such an auspicious event with a frenetic hysterical energy – even down to the correct colour of the almonds that are to be part of the feast.

Danny is trying to participate in the day, but having just broken up his engagement to a young woman, a shock to his family, he feels it is time that he explained the reason. He confesses his homosexual inclination. The family and all its traditions culturally and particularly religiously rejects the confessed sinful identification.

Danny is warned by his Uncle Mark (Johnny Nasser) that he will be torn between his God, his Church, his Family, his traditional Lebanese Community and his sexual identity that his Australian culture has made acceptable and legal. He is a sinner and so will be an exile forever. The struggle and the ‘punishment’ for such a heresy is a catastrophe for the well being of the young man. The drag queen LADY TABOULI (Johnny Nasser, also) maybe his only ally.

The play is written with a detail knowledge of the Lebanese world and the nuances of such an important event as the Christening. It gains quite a bit of humour from its close observations. It, as well, recognises the tensions of the ‘bombshell’ that Danny has lobbed them at such a time – the reactions are uncomfortable and disturbed. Hypocritical and shallow. Impassioned and fearful.

The audience I saw this performance with was impressive because of the diversity of age and cultures present and its preparedness to witness the dilemma that the play posed. It proposed a true and living experience that the traditional cultures of the immigrant tribes must deal with in a very visceral way as their children must choose between the two traditions offered them: the old family-tribal traditions, or the freedoms of their adopted secular state.

Antony Makhlouf as Danny, (he is the usual actor that takes the central role in Mr Elassi’s works) expresses the fear of his ‘coming out’ and the exasperating culture reprisals that he can expect and the regret for the shame and expulsion from the world that has nurtured him so fiercely, with a studied conviction. Whilst Deborah Galanos’ mother figure exhibits the ‘bigotry’ of her generations’ expectations and the tremendous condemnation she and her family will receive from her community whilst suffering her daughter, in the creative hands of Nisine Amina, displaying the hypocrisy of her generation in her predatory compliance to the ‘rules’ while not really believing, for the convenience of receiving the tribal gifts and social standing that her efforts will endow her with, because she is, demonstrably, a good and faithful tribal member.

Director Dino Dimitriadis indulges in an excess of Design Imaging from Jonathan Hindmarsh, with a huge set of cumbersome walls of an elaborate kitchen and living room which the actors must laboriously push about in scene changes and to refurnish exhaustively. The action and length of time it takes to do this, halting the dramaturgical action of the play, is covered by a sound track of ethnic music (Ben Pierpoint) and burning candles and haze lit by Benjamin Brockman for grossly theatrical effect. I wondered if the Design presentation could be less ostentatious, simpler, grounded and less baroque. It felt as if I was in the usual concept of a lush musical instead of the raw suburban angst of a tribal cultural conflict of personal tragic consequences in the Western suburbs of Sydney.

This production’s flamboyancy distracted one from the serious content and the sincerity of the work of the actors. It diminished the issue exposures that concern the writer. Though, if you have been a journeyman with Mr Elassi’s output, LADY TABOULI, does seem to be a re-iteration of the same concern. Now, Arthur Miller, at his core has written only one play, too, but the circumstances of character and situation are so diverse that it never feels that we are in familiar territory. DEATH OF A SALESMAN, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and THE AMERICAN CLOCK for instance, at core an examination, an exposure of the illusion that is the American Dream. Mr Elassi needs to be more creative in the fields of his given circumstances in his plays to continue to sustain our interest in his important cultural concerns.

The performances and the drama of the cultural dilemma in this production of LADY TABOULI, was diminished by Mr Dimitriadis with the aural and visual choices overwhelming the effect of the acting and the content. The production Design shifting into a spectacular missionary zeal of a kind of glorified orthodoxy – of one kind or the other tradition – the ordinary humanity of the dramaturgy buried in over stated imagery/symbolism.

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