The first time the Santa Clara-based Arabian Shakespeare Festival performed "Romeo and Juliet" for students at the United Arab Emirates University, in 2010, there were gasps in the audience. In a culture where men and women never touch in public, the sight of actors holding hands on stage was risque. Watching the young lovers share a kiss was nothing less than shocking.

When the company staged parts of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" there last year, the room, a sea of women cloaked in traditional robes and headscarves exploded in debate about the role of patriarchy in society.

"It was unforgettable. The way they responded was amazing," says William J. Brown, the company's founder and artistic director. "It sparked a conversation that lasted an hour about the relationship between fathers and daughters."

Ray Renati, left, and William J. Brown III rehearse a scene from "A Message," Hussain Al Musalam’s play about religious and social
Ray Renati, left, and William J. Brown III rehearse a scene from "A Message," Hussain Al Musalam's play about religious and social intolerance, at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.Brown plays private John and Renati plays the General. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group) ( Jim Gensheimer )

Such is the brave new world for Arabian Shakespeare, whose goal is to use the Bard and other playwrights to build a cultural bridge between the U.S. and the Middle East. Exploring cultural taboos is the stock in trade of this troupe, which was launched in 2010 by a group of South Bay actors and directors. For Brown, the sound of debate is sweeter than any standing ovation.

Now, after two trips to the Middle East to stage the immortal works of Shakespeare, the company is bringing a hard-hitting Kuwaiti political parable to the Bay Area for its American premiere.

"There's a real need for this kind of theater right now," says San Jose State professor Matthew Spangler, who adapted the play. "As the world gets smaller and smaller, we need theater that tells global stories because we need to understand each other better."


Advertisement

Hussain Al Musalam's "A Message," a biting satire about the need for religious and social tolerance, is making its U.S. debut at San Francisco's Royce Theater, where it plays through Nov. 17. With tensions high between the U.S. and much of the Middle East, these thespians are hoping to get beyond issues of religion, ethnicity and culture to explore the universality of the human experience through the power of theater.

"Just hearing a Kuwaiti point of view, which is not something we are often exposed to, is very powerful," Spangler says. "There's nothing like theater to make you care about people outside of your own experience. Theater, of all the art forms, can bring people together despite diverse points of view and gets us to the point where we empathize."

"A Message" takes place in an airport in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2030 as the country explodes into civil unrest and U.S. troops are en route to protect its oil supply.

"It's an allegory about American intervention overseas that speaks to what is happening today in Afghanistan and Iraq," Spangler says.

While Brown has no interest in preachy political theater, he is hoping to provoke discussion of the American role abroad as well as the need for tolerance.

"The Middle East isn't as far off as it sounds, and we are not as dissimilar as we might think," says Brown, who plays John, a U.S. private, in the play. "We strive to show that despite the stereotypes present in the media, we are not so different after all."

Al Musalam, a well-known playwright and scholar in Kuwait, says that without this adventurous troupe, which operates on a modest $35,000 annual budget and often uses Kickstarter to raise funds, there would be no way an Arab Muslim writer could share his work with American audiences, which is his goal.

"I want them to reflect on their position as an American society," the playwright says in an email. "The play might contribute to changing some of their personal convictions ... it may lead to human awareness, longing to meet the 'other.' "

Indeed, the play's not the thing here. This is not a case of art for art's sake. The point is to get beyond surface differences to examine the core of the human condition. If all goes well with this production, Brown hopes to remount this adaptation in Kuwait.

"That's the beauty of art," says Aldo Billingslea, professor of drama at Santa Clara University who is an associate artist with the festival. "It can help break down stereotypes, celebrate our differences and identify our similarities."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

"A message"
Written by Hussain Al Musalam
When: Nov. 7-17
Where: Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa St. San Francisco
Tickets: $10-$30, 408-499-0017, www.arabianshakespearefestival.org