Shady al-Daly’s new play pokes fun at happiness gurus

A shy temperament and non-confrontational personality have pushed Al-Monhany to withdraw from society. He’s resorted to living only on social media, where he can create a fiction in which he plays the leading role.

Al-Monhany is one of five realistic sufferers in Shady al-Daly’s new two-hour drama, Al-Khalta al-Sereya lel Saada (The Magical Recipe for Happiness), which is being played by six promising actors on the stage of Cairo’s homely Hanager Theater this Ramadan. Our fast-paced, ever-changing world has either left these characters behind or dragged them along to be a mere cog in a wheel.

Daly is a 37-year-old actor and director who studied at the Academy of Arts and has since become a familiar face in both state-run and independent theaters. He has directed several plays, most notably Helm Blastik (A Plastic Dream), about the unfulfilled dreams of young Egyptians following the January 25 revolution, and Soneia fel Seen (Made in China), an adaptation of a Bertolt Brecht poem. He’s also acted in TV sitcoms, such as “Ragel we Set Setat” (A Man and Six Women).

The storyline of the new one-act play that he’s written and directed, The Magical Recipe for Happiness, revolves around a calm and jolly yet rather eerie middle-aged man (Mohamed Hefzy) who has assigned himself the role of wise man guiding his followers out of their mishaps and into the gleaming rays of happiness. He sits on stage while others come and go, seeking answers.

In addition to Al-Monhany (Fahd Ibrahim), we meet Heya (Rahma Ahmed) – who sits on an uncomfortably small chair to rant about a love story that’s left her distraught and rickety – and the woman who has it all (Fatma Mohamed Aly), who barges in with an intimidating presence, angry that she hasn’t managed to obtain contentment.

The “teddy-bear girl” (Abul Yazeid) is a young woman who has built all her life around her teddy bear – she hates people and crowds and talks only to her stuffed toy. Al-Mabsout (Mohamed Saadawy) has ceased missing people and has started to resemble an aimless robot. But, having poured his heart out to the wise man, he leaves emptier than before.

Indeed, scene after scene and one patient after another, it slowly becomes clear that the wise man suffers from his own demons and mostly fails to practice what he preaches.

We realize that the play is satirizing the talking heads, religious scholars, life coaches and “specialists” who appear on our TV screens daily, even actors and actresses who have hotlines and Twitter accounts to tell people what to do and how to live. They claim knowledge but lack it, saying they have the answers and that happiness can be had at a push of a button.

As for execution, the play’s scenes are short, sharp and full of movement, color and whimsical tunes by Marwan Fawzy. Placid choreographies and occasional singing are put to good use as fun additions to an evenhanded performance. Shorouk Samy excels with an array of out-of-the-box costumes – although the story is well grounded in the earthly plights of life, she’s taken her styling to a far-off land: Heya’s dark green dress makes her a burned butterfly, and the teddy-bear girl’s pastel jumpsuit gives her an UFO-ish flare.

The plot grows as we go, unraveling more information about its protagonists until we reach the wise man’s deepest fears. It’s a cleverly simplistic re-embodiment of the human quest for perfection: its setbacks, bumps, hindrances and failures. The open-ended yet comforting finale prompts us to each continue pondering the daunting question of what happiness is. It ridicules its title’s idea of readymade answers, and suggests we make our own recipes and stop listening to those who think they know better.

Exploring an existential question with smiles and witty skits, The Magical Recipe for Happiness is a breath of fresh air. And unlike most current theatrical performances that seem to cater to the young, it’s a show for all ages, and its universal topic will have broad appeal. The night I went, there was a full house of giggling spectators, and the only nuisance was the loud music from a neighboring puppet show that blasts through the walls of old Hanager.

Showing at Hanager Theater as part of its ongoing Ramadan program. Check the Facebook page for the schedule. Tickets are LE10 (for students) and LE20. 

Amany Ali Shawky 

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