Saturday, September 21, 2019

So You Think You Know What Is Going To Happen?

Monika Jolly and Quinlan Corbett in People of the Book (Chris Bennion)
People of the Book
ACT Theatre
Through September 29, 2019

The Greek myth of the relationship between Jason (of the Argonauts) and Medea, a king’s daughter is one that can be seen to be a devil’s bargain. Medea bargains to help Jason in his quests if he marries her and takes her away with him. But while Medea is a great help to Jason, she also turns out to have uncanny and murderous tendencies and a lot of people end up dead.

An audience member of Yussef El Guindi’s world premiere play, now playing at ACT Theatre, could keep that myth firmly in mind as they watch the story of newly-celebrated author Jason (Quinlan Corbett) who has published a memoir about being a soldier in Iraq and saving and then marrying an Iraqi woman, Madeeha (Monika Jolly).
El Guindi appears to have a passion for ambiguity. Not many aspects of life are straight-forwardly one way or another in his plays. Characters often have mixed motives or “want” multiple things, sometimes desiring things that clash with one another. Many of his plays include his unique perspective as an Arab-American, having spent a lot of time both in European-U.S. environments and his family’s home in Egypt. El Guindi also loves to make an audience decide they know something about a character only to pull the rug out from under with a later reveal.

His plays mix subtle and not-so-subtle elements that address the anti-Muslim phobias and bigotries wafting through much of our society. This particular play includes a PTSD-inspired nightmare of a soldier (Jason) who is forced to confess how much he wants to kill and destroy the Iraqis he was sent to fight after 9/11.

Jason returns to his home town with a possible movie deal in hand and is hosted and stays with old high school friends, married couple Amir (Wasim No’mani) and Lynn (Sydney Andrews). It’s not a great reunion because Amir and Lynn never thought he was that great a writer, and they themselves are creatives, so there’s competitive tension. And also, Amir tells Lynn of Jason’s great crush on her in high school, which makes Lynn feel awkward.

Almost as soon as they are alone together, Jason tells Lynn he still has great feelings for her. Unaccountably, she seems to want to touch the hot stove of forbidden attraction, knowing Jason is newly married, and she is supposed to be content in her own marriage.

When Madeeha arrives in her new country, Jason’s distaste for her becomes clear, though the reasons are hard to fathom. Madeeha seems to be doing everything she can to be a good wife to him. But is it because she’s aware of his growing fame and fortune or because she cares?

Amir begins to have suspicions about Jason’s memoir and how real the tale is. As an Arah-American, suddenly Lynn and Jason seem to call his patriotism into question, perhaps because he does not agree with buying into the gung-ho U.S. imperialism displayed in Jason’s book and popular movies.

Much of the 100-minute play is so easy to anticipate that it plays too much to stereotypes. Maybe that is to lull the audience into thinking the play has no surprises. But the character of Madeeha is far too complex for that, and is ready to shake up every assumption you make.

Jolly is the clear star of the play once you arrive at the final moments. As Madeeha discovers Jason’s attraction to Lynn and her marriage is on the line, she reveals much more of what she is capable of and shows Jason what his future will look like.

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