'Seuls' at the Wilma: An author in search of a self

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A scene from "Seuls," Wajdi Mouawad's semiautobiographical, one-man show.

Lebanese Canadian playwright, performer, and director Wajdi Mouawad opens his vividly imagined, semiautobiographical, one-man show Seuls at the Wilma Theater on Tuesday. Seuls concerns wishes, the compromises we make, the doubts we harbor, and their impact on our sense of self.

Performed in French with projected English titles, Seuls (“Alone”) is about Mouawad’s love of the Wilma (where he has produced several works), but it's even more about his love affair with Canada’s institutional theater. He graduated from the  National Theatre School of Canada in Montréal; established the Abé Carré Cé Carré Company in Quebec; and  is head of La Colline, Canada’s national theater.

“It’s always very emotional for me to present my shows abroad, to realize how the public reacts to them or to attach them differently, depending on their own history,” Mouawad says. “All the more so on American soil, renowned for its welcome of the other, and the diversity, and diversity of the itineraries of the people who compose it. This experience is all the more interesting for me with Seuls, since I am the only actor on stage.”

 

When Mouawad attended theater school, the roles he was given -- “because of my French physiognomy and accent” -- did not always satisfy him. And the roles did not “reflect what I was going through and what I needed to express.” So to escape the “boredom and the lack of work, friends and I decided to create our own shows.” Mouawad wanted his audience to understand the way he heard theater in his head, the anger it contained. “Especially as my rhythm of writing is like a pebble that is thrown on the water and makes ricochets,” he says. “If thrown too slowly, it sinks.”

 

“Wajdi is an immigrant who understands displacement and writes about it,” says Blanka Zizka, artistic director and cofounder of the Wilma, who is herself an artist/expatriate. (She defected from then-Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1973.) The Wilma itself, in part, arose out of the desires and emotions of the outsider, a place Mouawad was likely to feel at home. His first staged play there was Scorched in 2009, the story of a mother and brother’s life and a journey through the Middle East. 

Here is a video clip of that production:

“Mouawad insists that artists have to be witnesses to all kinds of expressions of humanity but capture it with beauty,” Zizka says. “His art will never lie or succumb to fashion and trends. His process of true discovery is what matters. Wajdi inspires me. I believe his art is necessary, like bread and water.”

Seuls reads like a rhythmic poem based, in part, on the playwright’s search for new ways to work (“to kill the chatter in my head”) and integrate into his play the sounds and voices he recorded for this show. It also, as mentioned, has elements of autobiography, looking back to Mouawad's youth in Lebanon, which his family left when he was 8, fleeing civil war.

The play embodies, “as Gilles Deleuze says, qui m’a donné l’impulsion (that which gave me the impetus),” Mouawad says. “Seuls is really the attempt to find that state of mind I was in from my past, those moments that were destroyed by what was unspoken.” It is the drama of what might have been. “So, autobiographical, yes, with one difference: It is not me who is on stage; it is really that version of myself who did not exist, a version of myself that I do have affection for, but whose fate could have been tragic.”

Mouawad ends Seuls with his Arabic mother tongue -- a language “I have not spoken for 30 years” -- which allows him to ask essential questions about reality and fantasy. “One day I asked my father, ‘What did I do when I was a kid? I do not have a picture of me, no memory.’ He replied, 'To calm you down, you were given pencils of color and paint.’  And my sister told me, ‘You always wanted to be a painter.’  I made the connection with the forgotten Arab. Where has all this gone? Seuls is this: an attempt to find in me moments and sensations destroyed by life.”


Seuls. Nov. 29-Dec. 11 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $15-$35. Information: 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.

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