Hotter Than Eygpt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs. Photo by Truman Buffett, courtesy of ACT Theater.
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Performance Review: Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs

­­­HOTTER THAN EGYPT. By Yussef El Guindi. Directed by John Langs. ACT, Seattle. February 5, 2022.

Reviewed by Malek Najjar, University of Oregon

Yussef El Guindi’s play Hotter Than Egypt explores the lives of two couples, one American and one Egyptian, coming to terms with the end of their respective relationships in El Sisi’s Egypt. The American couple, Paul and Jean, travel to Cairo for their anniversary. There they meet their tour guides Seif and Maha, an Egyptian couple barely making ends meet providing tours to Western travelers. Paul is a wealthy businessman who has work in Egypt, and his bored housewife Jean is visiting the country for the first time. For her part, Maha is desperately trying to put on a good face for the tourists while her partner Seif uncomfortably suppresses his anti-colonial outrage at visitors who seem to be interested in the picture-postcard version of his country while overlooking the political corruption, economic devastation, and anti-Muslim sentiments they bring with them. Paul and Jean’s relationship gradually unravels, leading Paul to admit he’s having an affair with Maha. Both couples deal with their infidelity, lies, and uncertain futures. 

Jen Taylor as Jean in ACT Theater's Hotter Than Egypt.

Jen Taylor as Jean in ACT Theater’s Hotter Than Egypt. Photo Credit: Truman Buffett. Courtesy of ACT Theater.

As one expects from El Guindi’s plays, the dialogue is witty, the characters are fully realized, the structure is sound, and the play is entertaining. As a scholar of Arab American theatre, I would have preferred seeing more of Maha and Seif’s story rather than Paul and Jean’s. Given that Paul and Jean’s roles were so much larger and that their characters were given so much more prominence, the play was imbalanced in their favor. Given the current theatrical landscape, it makes sense that El Guindi would find the need to provide great roles to deserving repertory actors at a theatre like ACT. However, wouldn’t it be something if the Middle Eastern American actors were the repertory actors that received the best roles? This gets to the core of the difficulty facing Middle Eastern American actors; they are usually not part of a core repertory and are only hired for one-off projects which can either entail rich, multidimensional portrayals like those provided by El Guindi, or tertiary stereotypical roles that are often found in Shakespearean adaptations or plays that cast Middle Eastern actors as one-dimensional characters.

It was refreshing to see the personal lives of young Egyptians portrayed onstage, especially those who have had to endure the seismic shifts of the past decade, play out with such unvarnished honesty. Seif’s contempt for tourists, and Maha’s constant need to appease those tourists just to survive, speak volumes about the way(s) Americans view Egyptians, and Egyptians view Americans. Seif tells Maha, “Instead of hiring a regular tourist guide, why not be shown around by someone who shows contempt for you. Who insults you for your country’s imperialism or past colonialism. Hire us and we’ll tell you why you should feel guilty if you don’t already, while exploring Egypt.” In these brief interludes, El Guindi reminds audiences that their complicity in the machinations of Egyptian politics has not always been for the benefit of ordinary Egyptians living under the strains of authoritarian regimes funded by U.S. taxpayers. At one point Maha tells Seif, “Something has to change. Or we’re all going to explode—again.” If only certain Egyptian generals were in the audience to hear that.   

Wasim No'mani as Seif and Naseem Etemad as Maha in ACT Theater's Hotter Than Egypt

Wasim No’mani as Seif and Naseem Etemad as Maha in ACT Theater’s Hotter Than Egypt. Photo Credit: Truman Buffett. Courtesy of ACT Theater.

John Langs expertly directed the play, with dramaturgy provided by Nakissa Etemad. The in-the-round set, designed by Carey Wong, capably transported audiences from Paul and Jean’s upscale Cairo hotel room to Seif’s cramped apartment, and from the Egyptian Museum to a felucca piloted along the Nile by a cheerful Boatman. Paul and Jean’s hotel room looked like a warm, inviting, Egyptian-inspired resort. However, a more impersonal, corporate hotel room setting could have contrasted even more with Seif’s “miserable and threadbare” apartment and told us more about the detached attitude with which Paul views Egypt. In the script, Jean states, “You can skim right through a country without once experiencing anything remotely intimate about the people who live there. This is like a real introduction. I feel like I’m finally in Egypt now. Not in a hotel room, or a museum.” Providing a less Egyptian, and more Western, hotel setting might have accentuated that sentiment more. The impressive faux-Ancient Egyptian statues and colossal columns gave the intimate performance space greater size and scope than expected. Melanie Burgess’s costume design nicely contrasted Paul and Jean’s stylish tailored silhouettes with Maha and Seif’s barely affordable off-the-rack clothing. That contrast spoke volumes about the economic disparity between tourists and tour guides. The Boatman’s gallebeya reminds us of the hard-working everyday Egyptians who live outside of the Cairene metropolis. 

Ahmad Kamal as Boatman in ACT Theater’s Hotter Than Egypt. Photo Credit: Truman Buffett. Courtesy of ACT Theater.

On the performance side, having characters speak in English while supposedly speaking another language (in this case Arabic) was approached by El Guindi in the playtext in the following manner: “When Seif and Maha ‘speak in Arabic’ (untranslated) they won’t have an accent. When speaking to Paul and Jean in English they will have an accent.” I found this choice jarring; the moment the actors playing Seif and Maha “spoke Arabic” in North American dialect, they ceased to read as Egyptians to me, but rather as Middle Eastern Americans. This also had to do with the fact that they also dropped the gestures and physicality that might mark them as Arab as well. Although I’m not necessarily advocating a bilingual production here, I believe there must be more effective ways to have English-speaking actors credibly portray their characters speaking in different languages. 

Paul Morgan Stetler and Jen Taylor were outstanding in their roles as Paul and Jean. Stetler expertly navigated both the ignorant enthusiasm and the bewildered obtuseness of Paul’s character. Taylor’s Jean exuded desperation, longing, and unfulfilled desires. For his part, Wasim No’mani played Seif admirably, though I was never fully convinced that he was from Cairo. Whenever he spoke in his North American accent, I saw one of El Guindi’s Arab American characters onstage. That said, his scenes with Maha (beautifully played by Naseem Etemad) were deeply moving and sincere. Etemad adroitly negotiated Maha’s attempt to keep her relationship with Seif with her desperation to leave Egypt by any means possible. Ahmad Kamal played each of the characters of the Boatman, Museum Guard, and Doorman with great honesty and dexterity. The Boatman’s final scene with Jean, where he speaks only a handful of lines, was terribly poignant. 

Paul Morgan Stetler as Paul in ACT Theater’s Hotter Than Egypt. Photo Credit: Truman Buffett. Courtesy of ACT Theater.

When the lights dimmed before the performance of Hotter Than Egypt, the audience announcement was presented in English and in Egyptian Arabic. This was something I, as an avid theatre goer, and as someone who has seen many Arab American plays, had not experienced before. El Guindi is part of the ACT Core Company, the first Arab American playwright to hold that distinction at an Equity theatre. ACT has produced five world premieres of Seattle-based El Guindi’s plays: Threesome, The Ramayana (co-adapted with Stephaine Timm), Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, Language Rooms, and Hotter Than Egypt. With each production it becomes clear that El Guindi is creating a substantial body of plays that will surely define him as one of the most prolific Arab American playwrights of our age. It is heartening to see an Equity theatre in the United States investing in an Arab American playwright of El Guindi’s outstanding caliber; likewise, as an Arab American it is always promising to see our stories told at major American repertory theatres.


Malek Najjar is an Associate Professor of Theatre Arts with the University of Oregon. His published works include Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists and Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study: 1908 to the Present. He has edited Four Arab American Plays: Works by Leila Buck, Jamil Khoury, Yussef El Guindi, and Lameece Issaq & Jacob KaderThe Selected Works of Yussef El Guindi; and Heather Raffo’s Iraq Plays: The Things That Can’t Be Said. He co-edited The Vagrant Trilogy: Three Plays by Mona Mansour, and Six Plays of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.


 

Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

 

Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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