The signs of ‘Progress’
At the heart of “The Speaker’s Progress,’’ an inventive political satire by Kuwaiti playwright Sulayman Al-Bassam, lies the notion that the act of creating theater is inherently an act of dissent.
In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, there’s an obvious timeliness to “The Speaker’s Progress,’’ which takes place in a totalitarian nation in the Middle East where the authorities have banned theater and stifled popular expression, only to find rebellion surging to the surface in ways they can neither anticipate nor entirely prevent.
Yet Al-Bassam, who directs and performs in the visually striking production by his eponymous theater company, is clearly aiming for more than topicality. He wrote the play last October, then revised it, crafting a more hopeful ending, as popular uprisings spread in the Arab world. Now the piece is receiving its New England premiere at the Paramount Center Mainstage under the auspices of ArtsEmerson.
Al-Bassam’s use of an adaptation of “Twelfth Night’’ as the central device in “The Speaker’s Progress’’ suggests not just that Shakespeare is the universal playwright, a writer for all times and places, but also that art’s power to subvert tyranny transcends eras and cultures.
Certainly the leaders of the regime in “Progress’’ - unseen but represented by a camera that is trained on the performers - seem to understand the threat to their ironclad rule represented by the marriage of artistic creativity and political ideas.
Al-Bassam plays the title character, a onetime theater producer now forced into the role of an Orwellian mouthpiece for the regime. A theater troupe’s 1963 production based on “Twelfth Night,’’ parts of which we see in flickering black-and-white film on a large screen onstage, has become an inspiration for popular resistance, presumably because the dialogue includes such pointed lines as “Music is the food of love and love is the blood of freedom and freedom is the mother of progress. . . . How can you transform a country if you don’t put women at its center?’’
The Speaker’s task is to oversee a live performance of the “Twelfth Night’’ adaptation, reconstructing it and deconstructing it at the same time, elaborately condemning its “decadence’’ and tsk-tsking at the troupe’s “misguided’’ values. But Al-Bassam’s deadpan delivery subtly signals that the Speaker is not quite the docile puppet the regime imagines him to be.
The reconstruction is performed by eight other cast members who are attired in lab coats. They are not actors, the Speaker emphasizes, but “envoys’’ from such official organizations as the Tourist Board and the Council of Virtue. The men and women are required to stay a certain distance from one another, and their movements and line deliveries are, at first, mechanical.
Over time, though, they begin to deviate from the script, to hazard the occasional gesture of defiance, and to veer into politically dangerous territory, in an apparent reflection of the social change that is happening in their nation. They burst into bits of song; women change into dresses and take off their head scarves; one of the men hollers, “Freedom!’’ and is promptly beaten and locked in a cage; the Speaker is taken away. Yet “The Speaker’s Progress’’ conveys the sense that the forces of repression will not prevail, that the tide of change is both inevitable and irresistible.
Though some English is spoken, the 90-minute production is primarily performed in Arabic, with English supertitles. The playwright gets carried away at times by his gifts for poetic and allegorical expression; there are moments when one wishes for more clarity and less opacity. But his overall message is not lost.
“When systems of oppression crumble, so, too, do the masks and texts we used to criticize them,’’ Al-Bassam writes in a program note. “What is spoken then, after the fall, are the tentative ciphers of a new, unwritten text, daunting in its vastness and obscurity: that is the text of freedom.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.