Thursday, May 05, 2016

Macha Monkey presents the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi’s “The Collaborator”

Hayley Guthrie in The Collaborator (photo by Kristina Sutherland Rowell)
The Collaborator
Macha Monkey Productions
Through May 14, 2016

Macha Monkey Productions is doing a little world premiere… Little in terms of size of cast – one (Hayley Guthrie). Little in terms of time – about 75 minutes. But big in terms of playwright – nationally known, but local Yussef El Guindi, and a big dip into female/male sexual politics.

Directed by Anita Montgomery, who has worked with El Guindi on at least two of his plays, the script of The Collaborator begins with an actor, Cass, addressing the audience. She’s dressed in night clothes and explains that she and her collaborator, whom she clarifies is male, decided on the costume and the set, together.

The actor speaks about the actor-ego, the desire for people to watch an actor, the despair for the actor if people don’t seem interested, the awareness of people yawning, sleeping or leaving. Then she begins to tell a story about walking home from her theater-gig as a French maid in what sounds like a terrible farce where everyone ends the play by slapping each other’s butts.
There are two men walking toward her on a dark street, moments from her house, but she is dressed in the French maid outfit with stage makeup on, and she tells us all the different thoughts that run quickly through her brain, including, “Maybe they’ve just been watching Hedda Gabler (at a nearby theater) and are discussing Ibsen!”

Of course, they haven’t been discussing Ibsen or watching theater, and it takes a while for us to find out exactly what does happen, as she segues into her relationship with the collaborator, which also has ominous aspects. That’s the heart of what El Guindi wants to explore – the complicated, gray-area, not-quite-cut-and-dried moments of sexual interaction when awkward sex drifts into unwanted sex.

There are two aspects to discuss here: the script and the performance. Evaluating just the script allows for imagining variation from the current presentation. It has an expansively permissive quality to it. The actor cast in this role and her interpretation of the script could produce a very different feeling or outcome for the audience. Still, there is an unfinished quality to the endin of the script that doesn’t help the audience know what to make of the journey.

Does El Guindi have a conclusion he’s drawing? Is he trying on a woman’s perspective in order to learn how to better understand women in his life? His choice of writing a woman’s narrative is evocative, but as yet, perhaps, unfulfilled.

Guthrie, new to our region, is a capable actor, and I felt that she was much more successful when she could play a direct emotion and talk to another character. The beginning of the play, in her address to the audience, is far less convincing and the artifice is almost bitingly apparent. She is supposed to put us at ease, and instead, made my teeth sit on edge. I enjoyed what the monologue said, mostly, but the delivery, where she is supposed to be “real,” made me feel like she was the most UN-real of the evening.

Perhaps that is because addressing an audience for an actor is not the normal thing to do. As she transitioned into a different kind of presentation, where she was still supposed to be “herself” but was now telling a made up story, she becomes a character and therefore, also comfortable in the role.

There are aspects of new-theater paradigm here that combine in an interesting way to get at a topic that is supremely personal, yet universally applicable. The first-person address might be an awkward lecture, or a way to break down the wall between performer and audience to make it easier for us to be dragged into the personal journey. It feels like a worthwhile experiment that can yet go even further before the evening is through.

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