In­phisamia: A cure for what ails you

The in­ter­ac­tive play asks – and an­swers – what’s wrong with Le­banese so­ci­ety

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Philip Issa “In­phisamia,” play­ing Mon­day evenings, Feb. 29 and March 7, at the Back Door The­ater in Mar Mikhael.

BEIRUT: Roger Ghanem’s in­ter­ac­tive new play “In­phisamia,” now up at Mar Mikhael’s Back Door The­ater, is as en­ter­tain­ing as it is enig­matic.

The play’s plot is ill-de­fined be­yond its ba­sic premise. Af­ter 40 years in quar­an­tine, a hos­pi­tal lab has re­opened in or­der to dis­pense In­phisamia – a medicine that’s sup­posed to heal the sev­eral patholo­gies of mod­ern Le­banon.

In Le­banese Ara­bic, “in­phisamia” is an ex­pres­sion con­not­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal am­biva­lence, our ten­dency to vac­il­late in a con­di­tion of un­cer­tainty – in mat­ters of opin­ion, for in­stance – to swerve be­tween highs and lows, ec­stasy and de­spair, to hes­i­tate in love or to over­com­mit.

That should be the first clue that isn’t of­fer­ing a panacea but a di­ag­no­sis. It might be the play­ers’ way of sug­gest­ing that the di­ag­no­sis is it­self a cure.

In a se­ries of dis­cor­dant acts, the play sees the cast in­vite the au­di­ence not sim­ply to ab­sorb the quin­tes­sen­tial Le­banese cliche – In­phisamia – as our cul­ture en­cour­ages us to do, but to re­flect on it and rec­og­nize each other be­neath.

What plot there is is quickly lost, how­ever, and in a most sin­cere and amus­ing way. Hospi­tals are them­selves am­biva­lent spa­ces – on one hand, for­mal and ster­ile and on the other, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally in­ti­mate. As char­ac­ters veer from pa­tients to talk-show hosts, from busi­ness­men to suit­ors, doc­tors and jesters, the in­ten­sity soft­ens, blur­ring the line be­tween liveli­hood and life, in­di­vid­u­al­ity and com­mu­nity.

The in­ter­ac­tive com­po­nent of Ghanem’s play is sub­tle. The cast guides its au­di­ence into the the­ater to sit in a re­laxed, cafe-like space, com­plete with a bar.

A few au­di­ence mem­bers will be asked some sim­ple ques­tions: “What do you like about your date?” for in­stance. And fewer still are in­vited to sit on the edge of the stage.

For the au­di­ence of “In­phisamia,” ex­is­tence is it­self par­tic­i­pa­tion in the play. It is a tes­ta­ment to the cast’s skill and grace that ap­pre­hen­sive guests are soon made to re­lax, lean into their dates and laugh as the play gets un­der­way.

The whole cast is first rate, both in their com­mit­ment and seam­less im­pro­vi­sa­tion. They fill the space yet do not crowd it – a con­cern for in­ter­ac­tive the­ater.

Spe­cial men­tion must be made of the magnetic Stephanie Atala and ter­rific Elie Bas­sila, who fea­ture in the play’s long­est act, in which the play­ers pose rid­dles to the au­di­ence. Why, for in­stance, does food smell good out­side the body but aw­ful in­side it?

It might seem pedes­trian to liken this play to a late-night talk show, but that would cheapen its en­gage­ment and hu­mor. “In­phisamia” is re­flec­tive, satir­i­cal and in­ti­mate. It is a Mon­day evening well spent.

Ghanem told The Daily Star he could ex­tend the play’s run. Let’s hope so.

Hospi­tals are at once for­mal and in­ti­mate spa­ces.

Call for a pre­scrip­tion for “In­phisamia.”

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