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The Curse of the Pharaohs

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THE CURSE OF THE PHARAOHS

Interplay

The curse of the pharaohs is directed against all who seek to glorify themselves by excavating the tombs of the ancient Egyptian rulers. And being cursed with bad luck and oblivion may apply not only to tomb robbers and Egyptologists but to artistic excavators. It does seem as though whenever modern artists invoke the mysterious world of ancient Egypt, they fall victim to bad luck. Think of such box-office flops as the films Sphinx and Liz Taylor and Richard Burton's Cleopatra, and the premature oblivion visited upon the recording careers of Steve Martin ("Born in Arizona / Moved to Babylona") and the Bangles ("Walk Like an Egyptian"). One might well add to this accursed roster Robin Brooks's The Curse of the Pharaohs.

It's easy to see how a synopsis of the play, whose focus is the discovery of King Tut's tomb, might have intrigued the folks at Interplay, where it's receiving its Chicago premiere. Based on archaeologist Howard Carter's expeditions in the late teens and early 20s with his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, and his sponsor's daughter, Lady Evelyn, The Curse of the Pharaohs promises sophisticated entertainment on the order of an Agatha Christie novel, complete with dry British wit, romantic exchanges between Carter and Lady Evelyn, and of course the legendary curse.

Brooks takes us from jolly old England to the Valley of the Kings, where Carter uncovers the treasures that would have people lining up outside the Field Museum more than 50 years later. But what seems at first a magnificent discovery does turn into a curse to those involved: Carter becomes obsessed with the tomb, Lady Evelyn's love for him goes unrequited, and Lord Carnarvon falls suddenly ill. And Carter is never able to enjoy the fruits of his discovery because an argument over territorial rights leaves the artifacts in the hands of the Egyptians.

Brooks concentrates on the excavation and the disagreements between the British and the Egyptians, glossing over the human side of these historical incidents. His characters are flat and unappealing, and their interactions are often trite and dull. Carter is something of a prig, and Lady Evelyn's infatuation with him seems merely a function of the fact that he's the only male in the script other than her father and the Egyptian prime minister.

Brooks reduces the thrill of discovery to hackneyed aphorisms on the order of "There's something about the place . . . it gets ahold of you," and "This is history." When the blustering Lord Carnarvon inadvertently catches his daughter and Carter in a passionate embrace, his contention that Carter has soiled his daughter's honor is more melodramatic than real. And Carnarvon's distracted deathbed remarks ("Where's Evelyn?" or "I've heard the call") are soap opera cliches.

Clearly Brooks is attempting to draw some parallels between the long-ago fall of Egyptian culture and the end of the British empire. But they are not drawn gracefully. Like the Egyptian pharaohs, high-ranking members of British society are presented as relics. They may honor their leaders, whom they consider kings of the world, with palaces adorned with jewels of the crown, but as far as history is concerned those leaders are already entombed. Equating the obsolescence of the British empire with that of the Egyptians is not a bad idea, but having the British characters mimic Egyptian wall paintings in dance sequences during scene breaks and wrapping the deceased Lord Carnarvon like a mummy are rather crass ways of expressing it.

The Interplay actors are adequate, though in their efforts to wring emotion out of the script they sometimes journey too far into the Land of Ham. The excavation sequences include some excellent pantomime, but Paul Myers as Carter goes overboard sometimes. He's understandably euphoric when he uncovers the tomb, but shouting lines like "Can you hold this?" and "I'll need a candle!" as if in orgasmic glee is going too far. The other performers fare better, particularly Tina Gluschenko, who manages to wrest some profoundly accurate moments from the stock character Lady Evelyn. And in his unctuous portrayal of Egyptian prime minister Saad Zaghlul, director David Perkovich achieves some of the play's few moments of intelligent humor and restraint.

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