I-Fest 2008: YASSER
United Kingdom

Chopin Productions

Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2008 Nominee
"Stunningly powerful and poetic... a frankly triumphant production." British Theatre Guide
Critical List Pick, Edinburgh Fringe Festival - The Times
5 Stars - British Theater Guide
4 Stars - Edinburg Evening News

Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award nominee

"Best Bets" - Chicago Tribune's Red Eye edition 10/27/08
"Chopin Theatre's international vision grows" - Chicago Sun Times 10/31/08
"60 minute high energy monologue...El-Gardi is accomplished and engaging" Tony Adler, Chicago Reader 11/15/08
"Strangely sidestepping the debate...- Chris Piatt, TimeOut Chicago 11/5/08
"..mini UN of experimental theater" - Kerry Reid, Performink 10/23/08

10/28/08 - 11/09/08

7p Tue, Thu-Sat; 3p Sun

Video: youtube link
Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2008 nominee

Directly from Edinburgh Fringe Festival

BEST BETS, Chicago Tribune's Red Eye edition 10/27/08 -

"See tales about forging identity in a changing world at the fourth annual I-Fest European Solo Acts. At 7pm, Abdelkader Benali's dramedy "yasser" takes the stage, illustrating the identity crisis of a Palestinian actor portraying the Jewish character Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice"; at 830pm, take stock of Oleg Lipstin's "A Propos of the Wet Snow", an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground" about societal pressures and inner convictions" - Julia Borchets.

"Chopin Theatre's international vision grows", Hedy Weiss,Chicago Sun Times 10/31/08 - "The Chopin Theatre has made a huge effort in recent years to import some of the more interesting, imaginative and controversial theater productions on the European scene.

Two works are now being showcased in the fourth edition of its I-Fest, and , as producer Zygmunt Dykracz explains, "they represent the growing population of individuals influenced by the new realities of the 21st century - global culture, international migration, mixed marriages and more." Included are:

YASSER,a solo piece by Moroccan-born playwright Abdelkadir Benalis that homes in on a young Palestinian actor who is living and working in Europe, and who is in a state of multilayered chaos as he prepares to play the role of Shylock, the Jewish character at the center of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice". The 60 minute play is performed by William El-gardi, a British-based Sudanese-Egyptian actor.

A Propos of the Wet Snow , - a 90 minute adaptation by Russian-Ukrainian bred Oleg Liptsin (who also stars and directs) of the Dostoevsky classic, "Notes from the Underground". The work, featuring Ai-Cheng Ho as a prostitute, takes the form of the rambling existential "diary" of a retired civil servant in St. Petersburg, Russia - a man whose paranoia and bitterness compels him to act out in self destructive ways that are ultimately his own expression of freedom.

Presented back to back (tickets are $15 for one show or $20 for both), performances run through Nov 9th at the Chopin Theatre".

Chopin Theatre's 'Yasser' turns up the heat on frightened actor - Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times 11/6/08

It's a classic scenario with a fairly predictable political twist. Abdelkader Benali's hourlong "Yasser," one of the two solo shows now on view as part of I-Fest, Chopin Theatre's showcase of international productions, uses the time-tested notion of an actor in the throes of a panic attack shortly before he must make his entrance onstage. At the same time, it turns the pressure cooker up a notch by homing in on a Palestinian actor working in Britain -- a young man about to play Shylock, the embattled Jewish character at the center of Shakespeare's ever-controversial play "The Merchant of Venice."

Of course the underlying notion in all this is that the actor, Yasser Mansour (played by William el-Gardi), begins to realize that he can tap into the essence of his wounded Palestinian psyche by digging inside the wounded psyche of the Jewish moneylender. The sense of oppression can be universal.

The other irritants in Yasser's life are more mundane, though not always clearly explained. Apparently, on his way to the theater, Mansour has been mugged by some young thugs who absconded with his suitcase, which contained all the props he ordinarily used in the play, including a large fake nose (yes, stereotypes die hard). At the same time, the actor is having problems with his actress girlfriend Lucy, clearly a non-ethnic English girl. She seems to be thoroughly fed up with his political rants and general neuroses.

All this drives Mansour to recall his childhood when he and his friends portrayed world leaders and -- because of his own given name and a slight physical resemblance -- he assumed the role of Yasser Arafat.

With the audience seated on couches and armchairs in the atmospheric basement lobby of the Chopin Theatre, El-Gardi -- a compact, high-energy actor with a fine sense of the absurd -- lurches about in a small area that suggests Mansour's dressing room. And he deftly captures his character's state of high anxiety and well-honed self-mockery as he talks himself into the performance he knows he must give. It's a solid piece of acting, but not exactly a revelatory story.

Tony Adler, Chicago Reader 11/5/08 - "In this contribution to Chopin Theatre's I-Fest (see separate listing), William El-Gardi plays Yasser, a Palestinian actor working in England. Yasser's done pretty well for himself despite the politically problematic first name, but today was horrible. Thugs took a valise containing the fake nose he uses to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The irony, of course, is that his own Semitic proboscis would work just fine. Yasser's acknowledgement of that fact triggers a 60-minute, high-energy monologue plumbing an identity that's uncomfortably like the valise: full of roles and no longer in Yasser's possession. El-Gardi is accomplished and engaging, but often too hyper. There were times when I wished he'd slow down so I could savor the poetic, paradoxical text by Moroccan-Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali".

Chris Piatt, TimeOut Chicago 11/5/08 - "Casual pop-music critics will tell you that the same guy can become a singer anywhere. Be it Bruce Springsteen (Jersey), Billy Joel (Long Island), Jackson Browne (Los Angeles) or John Mellencamp (a small town), the working-class folk rocker’s message will generally be the same; it’s just the accents and regional shout-outs that vary.

The same could very well be said of the one-man show about the rising young actor. In Yasser, the titular character is a feverish, devout Palestinian thespian whose crisis of conscience comes as he’s forced to play Shylock. We see him in his dressing room an hour before curtain. Yasser isn’t just wrestling with his idea of himself; he’s replaying half his (seemingly regular) childhood for us.

Strangely sidestepping the debate that has long revolved around Merchant of Venice’s anti-Semitic politics, playwright Benali and director van der Sluijs march us through a typical evening of thinly written my-family-made-me-this-way-and-now-I’m-on-stage monologue tricks. El-Gardi, the British actor of Egyptian-Sudanese-Turkish descent who delivers the material, has focused energy and relatively crisp character delineation as he sorts through the personalities who have shaped Yasser’s worldview. But the script’s slightly naive perspective—specifically, that the (young) main character’s revelations about himself are unique enough to justify a full evening of our attention—recalls the actor showcases M.F.A. performers are often encouraged to write for themselves, regardless of having anything to say. At least this staging (part of the Chopin’s international I-Fest) reveals what a terrific performance venue the basement’s famous velvet lobby can be.

An Open Letter to Christopher Piatt from the director of YASSER -
Dear Mr Piatt,
As the director of Yasser, I am writing to you first of all to thank you for attending the performance and for writing your critical response to our work. As I believe generating debate is the most important function of theatre, I hope you will welcome my own critical response to your writing. I do not take argument with your personal opinions on the quality of the work, you are as entitled to those as any other punter in the audience. What saddens me is that you do not make use of your privileged position as an intelligent, critical voice in this country’s over-commercialized media to address at least some of the basic elements of Yasser: that a young Palestinian pleads for understanding and dialogue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. That, using the words of literature’s most famous Jew, he argues a case for co-existence of Palestinians and Jews. Mr Piatt, I chose to direct this play because while much attention is being paid this year to 60 years of Israeli nationhood, where is the Palestinian voice? Theatre is a meeting place with the unknown, the very reason for i-Fest’s existence. That requires the courage to engage with different and, in this case, marginalized voices. It saddens me that you spend a full third of your review writing about (solely white) American folk musicians. It saddens me that you label a fractured, parentless childhood among stone-throwing fanatics in Palestine uneventful. Irrespective of the standard of the work, it saddens me that a man of your intelligence, wit and expertise chooses to downplay and shy away from a critical issue in our times"

"..Mini UN of experimental theater" - Kerry Reid, Performink 10/23/08

Chopin Theatre not only serves as a rental facility for some of the hottest companies in town (the Hypocrites, TUTA, Oobleck), but also provides a rare opportunity to sample solo work from Europe and beyond in I-Fest. This year’s festival includes Yasser by Moroccan-born, Netherlands-residing author Abdelkader Benali, performed by Egyptian-Sudanese-Turkish actor (and current UK resident) William El-Gardi, which traces the conflicts faced by a young Palestinian actor preparing to play Shylock. Russian creator Oleg Liptsin and Taiwanese artist Ai-Cheng Ho will perform A Propos of the Wet Snow, based on Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” There will be two post-show panel discussions after Wet Snow. On Nov. 2, Liptsin, Gardi and Teunkie van der Slujis will be joined by Columbia College’s Brian Shaw to discuss preparing a one-person show for Edinburgh. A week later, on Nov. 9, the same group will be joined by Chicago journalist and comedian Ray Hanania on a panel called “Shakespeare Meets the Middle East.” The mini-UN of experimental theatre runs Oct. 28-Nov. 9 . A complete schedule is at www.chopintheatre.com.

On Stage - Barbara Vitello, Daily Herald 10/24/08

Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago, hosts I-Fest 2008 from Thursday, Oct. 28 to Nov. 9. The mini-festival showcases solo performers from around the world. This incarnation features Oleg Liptsin's take on Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground" and William El-Gardi performing "Yasser," Abdelkader Banali's monologue about a Palestinian actor preparing to play Shakespeare's Shylock, who's conflicted about his identity and the role he is to play.

Abdelkader Benali

Teunkie van der Sluijs

William el-Gardi

Set design - Andy Sinclair-Harris; Light design/techician - Esteban Nuñez

Tags: Festival, New Europe, 2008