American Buffalo: Theatre X’s Low Budget Production Makes Big Impact
The diminutive theatre crowd in Cairo makes up for its lack of demographic with passion and devotion to the art of performance. The city does not have a lot going on in that department once you discount Zamalek’s Cairo Opera House, but fortunately there’s a new company on the scene to save us from having to watch Swan Lake for the fifth time: Theatre X.
The non-profit professional theatre company was founded this year by theatre instructor, Jason Will, in support of the educational mission of the formerly dwindling American University in Cairo Theatre Program.
According to the official Facebook page, “Theatre X functions with a twofold mission to provide the region of New Cairo with high quality, professional productions of contemporary theatre with an emphasis on plays exploring social issues, while also operating as a training ground for students”.
The laissez-faire company’s odd name is derived from the algebraic symbol ‘X’, which stands for an unknown quantity, implying a theatre of unlimited possibility.
Despite being an independent project, ergo without funding from the university, the company’s first production, David Mamet’s American Buffalo, saw guest ‘director’, Erin Eggers, flown in from the U.S.A to work on the project.
“We didn’t classify it as a director; she was here to kind of guide us,” says Will, who plays Donny Dubrow in the play. “[With] Theatre X, the actors play around and we discover new things – there’s no real ‘director’. Once we got in the space and were playing around with it. We were able to make decisions for ourselves”.
Eggers, who last directed Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter for The Alchemist Theater in Wisconsin, lent her artistic license to American Buffalo – for which we can be grateful. Considering Will paid out of his own pocket for the guest director to work on the production, gratitude is the least we can muster in show of appreciation (as well as attending the play, of course).
American Buffalo is set in a run–down junk shop, where three men of great ambition and low morals – Donny ‘Don’ Dubrow, the shop owner, Walter ‘Teach’ Cole, his friend, and Bobby, Don’s young gofer – plan a heist of a customer’s valuable coin collection. However, when the con goes awry, it’s every man for himself as they become suspicious of each other.
The results are hilarious and ultimately tragic, in a play that’s recognised as a modern masterpiece. As is emblematic of Mamet’s writing style, the play’s dialogue is sometimes terse and often vulgar. Teach says “cunt” numerous times and both Don and Teach say “fuck” even more – almost every line of the script is punctuated with profanity. However, the intense nature of the script is not employed for shock value, but rather as ‘profane poetry’ which denotes the characters underclass.
In fact, Waleed Hammad, who plays Teach, considers the swearing the play’s selling-point.
“The level of intensity and the lengths that these characters go to—there’s a lot that people can see themselves in,” says Hammad.
Speaking of going to great lengths, Pola Kamel, who plays Bobby, went as far as to shave his head for the role—which goes to show just how dedicated the Theatre students at AUC are to their work.
Kamel’s portrayal of the simple, faithful yet secretly drug-addled Bobby stole the show when, in Act II, he is brutally beaten by Teach for supposedly going into business for himself by burgling their mark; one is convinced Kamel is genuinely wounded and in agony (the costume blood helps, of course).
Things get even better when Teach suddenly throws a tantrum, throwing objects, knocking over a cabinet and its contents and even breaking the glass pane of the display counter – basically destroying the set, which is probably the most detailed set that AUC’s Black Box Theatre has ever seen.
Scenery Designer of the production, Hesham El Sabban, procured most of the random contents of the junk shop form actual junk shops in Shubra El-Kheima, which included rusty bicycles which were hung from the ceiling of the set and a ‘working’ rotary telephone. The result was intricate and entertaining to look at during lulls in the run.
Theatre X’s American Buffalo is not to be missed, so instead of spending an evening at Point 90’s Starbucks across the road, get yourself an on-door ticket and give your culture-starved self a treat.