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Rehearsal: a hilarious and poignant Syrian-Canadian community production

By Ariel Kroon

As audience members file into The Westbury Theatre, a display of student and teacher artwork greeted them. The small exhibit is made and set up by the Syrian Heritage Association of Canada (SHAC), the community organization producing the evening’s play, Rehearsal

It set the tone for the evening — artistic delight and entertainment and the heart and imagination of the Syrian community in Edmonton. 

A bit later, writer and director Aksam Alyousef, talks about the genesis of Rehearsal: the script is the outcome of a playwriting workshop he was teaching for SHAC, with actors from fellow University of Alberta MA student Liz Hobbs’ workshop on acting. Aksam wrote Rehearsal—first in Arabic, then in English—with input from other participants, and he is clearly excited for a Canadian audience. The opening show in Arabic was a success, and tonight’s show on the Jan. 30 show is an opportunity for Rehearsal actors to flex their skills in English.

Rehearsal tells the story of a troupe of Syrian-Canadian actors readying themselves to put on a play that the audience later finds out, has been a long time in the making. Various scenes are rehearsed, interspersed with musical practice by a chorus of girls singing hauntingly beautiful Syrian songs, accompanied by the talented Ahmad Al-Badr and Kyle Pszyk on the oud and drum, respectively. 

The show follows a Monty-Python-esque sketch formula, with each scene focusing on one or more of the foibles and/or follies of Syrian-Canadians, and the drawbacks, benefits, and drama of diasporic community—from self-diagnosing patients becoming healthcare experts to the democratic process of electing a president of the Syrian-Canadian organization. Each scene is in varying stages of readiness for the fast-approaching performance night, and much of the humour comes from the struggle of the long-suffering director herding his mostly-youth actors and negotiating all the social politics of the Syrian-Canadian community sponsor organization.

Due to the nature of the play, it was often hard to tell if missed cues, stumbled lines, and technical problems were actual or part of the comedic ineptitude of the troupe, giving the production a candid authenticity. Some scenes were awkward, with some jokes landing better than others, but the narrative of a group of people genuinely trying their best to make art despite their busy lives came through strong. The humour remains light-hearted and mostly self-deprecating, poking gentle fun at the characters in a diasporic community (the mother who thinks her daughter is a prodigy; the man obsessed with his car insurance; the carefree, know-it-all child), but all the while haunted by the spectre of sectarian violence at home in Syria and—in a much less deadly but still very real way—at home in Edmonton. 

Overall, Rehearsal is a comedy that is educational, not just about Syrian-Canadian culture, but also the negotiation of politics and personalities that are part of the process of creating community.

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