Courtiers bow down before the king as he’s attended by his vizier during a rehearsal of the new Red Deer College production of the The King is the King.

A fool shall rule

A fool is put upon the throne as a joke in the next Red Deer College Theatre Studies play, The King is the King. To the jokesters’ surprise, he proves to be “in some ways, a better king than the king,” said the play’s director, Thomas Usher.

A fool is put upon the throne as a joke in the next Red Deer College Theatre Studies play, The King is the King.

To the jokesters’ surprise, he proves to be “in some ways, a better king than the king,” said the play’s director, Thomas Usher.

But in other ways, the fool becomes an even more repressive despot.

Among the subversive, political messages carried in The King is the King is the idea that whoever wears the “illusionary robes of authority” will rule, regardless of ability — and often regardless of what the people want, said Usher.

This play-within-a-play was written in an epic, stylized manner in 1977 by the late Syrian playwright and journalist Saadallah Wannous, as a veiled criticism of his country’s increasingly repressive regime.

Following defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, the Syrian government took control of the media and clamped down on public demonstrations ­—­ much like what’s happening with Syria’s pro-democracy gatherings today.

Usher said, “This is a happenstance that we couldn’t ignore.” He plans to make reference to present-day Syrian brutality by having “dying” demonstrators carried on and off stage as part of the background bustle of life in Damascus.

But the on-stage action soon parts ways with any realistic representations of reality in this play that opens on Wednesday in Studio A of the RDC Arts Centre.

The 21 cast members will reveal themselves to the audience as performers who are about to put on a play in the Arabian storytelling tradition of A Thousand and One Nights.

Characters in their story about ancient times will be portrayed using a mixture of live-action and puppetry techniques, designed by Edmonton-based properties and costume designer Lynette Maurice.

For instance, Usher said the King could be played by an actor in one scene and a puppet in the other. The King’s Wife will be symbolically portrayed by a pair of disembodied puppet lips, a heaving bosom and a scolding finger, while the King’s Daughter will be depicted by three actors at once.

These abstractions are part of the “distancing techniques” playwrights in repressive societies use to safely comment on present-day regimes while seemingly telling fanciful stories about the past, said Usher.

Like German playwright and social activist Berthold Brecht, Wannous wanted to engage the audience’s intellect by using archetypal characters to espouse broad ideas.

Rather than just making political statements, the UNESCO-featured playwright’s “theatre of politicization” was intended to empower viewers to take action, said Usher, who believes students enjoyed learning about this expressionistic theatrical approach.

The RDC students collaborated on making the puppets, many with complex moving parts, and then practised operating them in tandem (some puppets are nearly three-metres tall and require manipulation by several actors).

Throughout the two-week rehearsal process, the cast was put though an intense form of teamwork, said Usher. “The work is ensemble based, and we want the students to learn to work together.”

RDC set designer Carrie Hamilton is setting the exotic mood for this theatre-in-the-round presentation by pulling together piles of Middle-Eastern brass crockery and carpets, suggesting an Arabic marketplace.

What: RDC Theatre Studies presents The King is the King, a play by Saadallah Wannous

When: 7:30 p.m. April 11 to 14 (1 p.m. matinee on April 14)

Where: Studio A of the RDC Arts Centre

Tickets: $20.20 ($16.20 students/seniors) from Black Knight Ticket Centre

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