This month, ACT Theatre premieres a new relationship dramedy by Yussef El Guindi; and a ’90s reference-filled, geek-exalting production at Red Curtain is community theatre at its finest. Plus, teenagers at Village Theatre showed off a brand new musical.
Here are my takeaways from each.
Hotter Than Egypt @ ACT Theatre
We’re like those frogs boiling in water. … Living here, the way it is, the way it’s making us a little crazier each day.
There are a lot of noteworthy moments in Yussef El Guindi’s new play. And yet all I keep thinking about is frogs boiling in water — a seemingly toss-away line in the middle of the play that nonetheless captures the essence of the main characters. They sit in their environments, knowing the same lives they’ve always known, until suddenly they reach a point of boiling over. Among these characters, some boiling points are more pronounced than others.
Hotter Than Egypt brings a married couple of heterosexual White people to Cairo to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary — or actually, the man is on yet another business trip, and the woman gets the privilege of going along as their anniversary trip. From the very first moments, the long-standing chasm between the two is clear; John Langs’s direction gives away too much in that regard, in my view. It’s clear that their marriage had thawed well before they got to the heat of their vacation destination. They’re far apart on the stage, and they’re far apart from each other.
And you start to see why rather quickly. The guy (Paul, played by Paul Morgan Stetler) is a jerk. Not like one of those violently abusive types, but one that chips away slowly, steadily, at your being. He’s self-centered, arrogant, bombastic; he’s one of those types who says things just to pick fights or to show off his superior culture and knowledge. It doesn’t take him long to piss off his wife (Jean, played by Jen Taylor) by being himself.
Meanwhile, their much younger Egyptian tour guides (played by Wasim No’mani and Naseem Etemad) — an engaged couple, it turns out — are watching the whole thing, and they soon get drawn into the fray. Mr. Bombastic tries to get them both on his side at various points, and tries to pin them in logic matches in others. It’s like he talks not to say anything, but to prove he’s right — about whatever.
The most interesting points are not either couple, but their dance around each other. When the guides are arguing amongst themselves in front of the tourists, for example, their exchanges are in Arabic and thus relatively safe from prying ears. This is probably the most amusing part of the play: to denote when they’re speaking in Arabic (they are not in fact speaking in Arabic on stage), the actors drop their accents, sounding as casual country-tinged American as can be. It’s a clever device that allows the non-Arabic speakers among us to understand them, while also understanding that the tourist couple on stage cannot. But there’s another element here: by switching to a very casual, out-of-character affect, their exchanges sound very familiar between them. It’s a reminder that yes, their own language is the familiar one. Other than their tourist charges, their lives don’t involve America; it’s their English that’s forced, unfamiliar.
From there, there are twists and turns, most of them predictable, but I’ll leave them unstated just in case. Shit hits the fan — surprise!
What was surprising is how intricately El Guindi depicts a modern take on the enduring problem Betty Friedan described to the masses long ago: women underappreciated, stuck in unfulfilling roles, bottled up to bursting. Alongside that, he explores cultural and personal differences that are slight but thoughtful: the meaning of success (is it money or freedom?), relative freedoms (in which country are women more free?), and security (does a precarious government and engaged citizenry make for more safety in the streets, or less?).
But throughout, there’s that boiling frogs problem: at what point must they decide to leap out of their circumstances and into something else? And when they do, will reality be everything they dreamed of?
Probably not. El Guindi doesn’t try to answer that. But the problems of these four individuals, however predictable their debacles, make for an interesting trip.
‘Hotter Than Egypt’ runs through 2/20 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets $27-$50, here.
She Kills Monsters @ Red Curtain Foundation for the Arts
When I saw a small theatre up north was tackling Qui Nguyen’s ’90s reference-filled, fantasy-steeped, geek-exalting script, I had to go check it out.
I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination. And yet some of my favorite productions have centered around gaming in various forms — video games in From Kings to Controllers by Stacy D. Flood (produced by Ghost Light Theatricals in 2016); and role-playing games in Don’t Split the Party by Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey (at the Slate Theater in 2018) and, yes, She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen (produced at Theater Schmeater, also in 2018). I think it must be the level of imagination inherent in a fantasy world that gets woven into the play. Unsurprisingly, it makes for wonderfully imaginative drama.
She Kills Monsters is the type of show that demands commitment to the world of the play and a big imagination to execute on it; without audience buy-in on the more fantastical elements, there’s not much of a show. On both the fantasy world and the real world of teenage woes central to this play, Red Curtain delivers beautifully.
Where Hotter Than Egypt is steeped in the (too) ordinary, even abroad, She Kills Monsters whisks us away to the fantastical eked out in small-town Ohio. Popular teenager and cheerleader Agnes cringes at the quirks of her decidedly unpopular younger sister, Tilly, and wishes she didn’t have such a geeky sister. Right after, Tilly is killed in a car crash. The rest of the play centers on Agnes coming to terms with that fateful wish, her lack of connection with her sister, and peeling back the layers of their two separate worlds.
To get to some answers, Agnes tracks down a dungeon master to help her decode — and experience — the game her sister wrote. The deeper she delves into it, the more she realizes it might not be all a fantasy world. Dubbed “Agnes the Asshatted” (and deadpanned throughout) as she reveals her ignorance during game play, the popular cheerleader is guided through dangerous quests by her sister’s friends, outcasts in the real world but brave and resourceful guides in this dimension.
Red Curtain’s production is impressive. The design and lighting effects on both the set and the monsters (from a five-headed dragon with glowing eyes to a tiny flittering forest faerie) make the whole fantasy dimension come alive. Direction (by Scott B. Randall) holds a lot of moving parts together well. The ’90s jams are so right for the mood and moments, I’ll excuse the fact that they weren’t all quite out yet by the 1995 setting. The actors — including Lucy Johnson (Agnes), Lauren Hayes (Vera, Agnes’s emo friend), Brendan Wolff (Chuck, the dungeon master), Marina Pierce (Tilly), and Katelynn Carlson, Erin Lee Smith, and Daniel Hanlon (Tilly’s friends who become Agnes’s co-adventurers) — put on a strong performance, with both acting and weaponry in the mix. Of course the low-budget production feels rough in some places — but they’re places that work well for this show.
For all the sword-fighting, special effects, and really cool monsters (and there’s a lot of that), what makes this play so compelling is the progression of layers Agnes pulls back on her sister’s life she knew so little about. Through the game, Agnes begins to connect with Tilly’s story; and, through that, with her life and friends in the reality dimension. The more Agnes learns what a cool nerd her sister was, the more she’s able to process and grieve her absence.
For us of a certain age — anyone who cherished the 13″ TV/VCR combo in their room, remembers the Smashing Pumpkins double-disc came in a case as stacked as a club sandwich and, if pressed, could still name at least one Hanson brother — this play is apt to strike a lot of chords. It’s nostalgic gold, with a soundtrack to match.
So while Dungeons & Dragons might not be the world for you, and community theatre might not always sit atop your entertainment priorities, and Marysville might not be the most convenient of stops in your daily travels … even if all of those are true (as they generally are for me), I heartily recommend taking an adventure with this play. But do it soon — they close this weekend.
In an MmmBop they’re gone … ba duba dop.
‘She Kills Monsters’ runs through 2/13 at Red Curtain Foundation for the Arts in Marysville. Tickets are $22, here.
I’m Doing This @ Village Theatre KIDSTAGE
Note: This show is a first-draft musical created by teenagers in Village Theatre’s educational program. This is not intended as a review and should not be read as one, but as an update on their new musical in progress that had its first public performance in a staged reading last weekend.
In I’m Doing This, a dozen or so people buzz around in an apartment building in an unnamed big city that feels a lot like New York. Their one thing in common? They all have dreams they’re not exactly on trajectories to fulfill.
This show is about the energy of those desires, and what happens when they adjust those trajectories just a bit, sometimes with unexpected consequences.
With their dreaming characters stuck in ruts, and some working a handful of jobs to make ends (barely) meet, the vibe and setup of I’m Doing This calls to mind a less-gritty Rent with Generation Z updates. True to that generation, the youth writers here don’t shy away from many topics; their characters embrace questions of gender identity and sexual orientation, life and career paths, bullying, parents’ divorces, capitalism and anarchy, stifled creativity, romance, and friendship. Refreshingly, the characters are all written with agency to conceive their own notions of greatness; and while they might have to sit with the consequences, their paths are theirs to create.
As for the students’ own greatness? The talented young writers and performers here are off to a great start.
‘I’m Doing This’ ran 2/4-6 at Village Theatre KIDSTAGE in Everett. Show information here.
For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.