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A little ‘Medea’ in modern clothes

In Seattle, Yussef El-Guindi sets off an uncivil war in his new play "People of the Book."


SEATTLE – So much has happened to our nation, and to the world, since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 under President George W. Bush.  So much that many Americans have simply lost track of the misery, the devastation and the lasting consequences – from mass post-traumatic stress to tides of international terrorism and a scarily destabilized Middle East – that still radiate from that military misadventure.

But anyone with battle scars obvious or invisible hasn’t forgotten. Nor has Seattle-based playwright Yussef El-Guindi.  In his new People of the Book, now in its world premiere run at Seattle’s ACT Theatre, he sheds a sharp light on that war’s intimate effects on two couples whose battlefield becomes the home front.

From left: Quinlan Corbett, Sydney Andrews, Wasim No’mani, Monika Jolly in People of the Book. Photo: Chris Bennion

Egyptian-born, U.K.-educated and now a U.S. citizen, El Guindi is one of a very few playwrights of Middle East heritage to gain a national audience. Since the 1990s he has been crafting intelligent, unsettling dramas that investigate the tricky cultural, political and interpersonal dynamics between contemporary Americans and Middle Easterners.

Many of these plays have been introduced by Northwest theater companies, and the more recent ones are in the guise of romantic comedies. The Talented Ones, an off-kilter tale about the amours of a young immigrant couple, was commissioned by Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2017.   Before that Threesome, a triad sex farce that torches into a feminist bonfire, was developed and debuted in 2015 by Portland Center Stage before heading to Seattle and Off Broadway.

Despite his penchant for comedy, El Guindi is sometimes labeled a polemical dramatist, a tag he denies.  In People of the Book he’s really more of a provocateur and nouveau-Shavian, with a keen ear for the way new and native Americans debate global issues – and how their personal and artistic lives are tangled up in those broader concerns.

In People of the Book we first meet the Middle Eastern-American poet Amir (vigorously portrayed by Wasim No-mani) and his visual-artist wife Lynn (Sydney Andrews), at a bookstore café.  They have stepped outside during a reading by Jason (Quinland Corbett), a former high school classmate who has penned a best-selling memoir about his harrowing yet triumphant experiences as a U.S. soldier in Iraq.

The book is drawing considerable media attention, thanks to Jason’s descriptions of his valiant efforts to save an Iraqi woman named Madeeha (Monika Jolly) during a violent combat raid that left her husband dead.  Jason went on to marry Madeeha, and she is about to join him in the U.S.

But El Guindi takes his time revealing what actually happened in that bloody episode in Iraq which bound them together.  And his extended one-act is really a mystery, as it very gradually draws a parallel between the mythic Greek figures of Medea and her lover Jason and the modern characters whose names they bear.

From the first scene, we see a marital rift developing between Lynn and Amir over Jason. Neither of them took notice of him in high school; they were popular kids and he blended in with the un-cool crowd.  But now he’s hit the literary jackpot and Lynn is starstruck. She considers him a valiant hero ( “Thank you for your service!” she tells him, with over-the-top sincerity).  And she’s impressed by the success neither she with her life-sized cardboard cut-out statues nor Amir with his poems has achieved. 

But Amir has a more cynical view of American military heroism vis a vis Iraq, and a more skeptical response to Jason’s memoir.  “There’s something paint-by-numbers about it,” he says, and starts to question its veracity.  That doubt makes us wonder: Did Jason even write it?

When Jason meets up with them, he is not the conquering hero (or house guest) you’d expect.   Awkward, inarticulate and traumatized by battle, he is insecure and dismissive of praise. And despite the imminent arrival of his wife, he is all too responsive to Lynn’s lavish attentions, including her comically obvious flirting. (At one point, she coos over his buff biceps.)

Sydney Andrews and Quinlan Corbett. Photo: Chris Bennion

El Guindi has given us another problematic sexual triangle, which becomes a quadrangle once Madeeha arrives.   There’s a lot of conversing going on, but the psychic stakes are jazzed up theatrically for Jason with a whale of a nightmare.  In the dream, he’s a contestant in a garish Iraqi TV game show.  The preening host asks exactly why he joined up to serve in the war, and rejects his boiler-plate answers (i.e., patriotism, altruism).  It isn’t until the host turns on him (“Why did you come all the way to this country just to blow the whole thing up?”) that Jason spits out his true motivations for joining up: “Revenge… bragging rights…” and to gain the respect he never had in high school from people like Lynn and Amir.  (Are we forever plagued by our adolescence?  A shuddering prospect.)

If Jason remains a somewhat inscrutable character, the well-educated, well-spoken and poised Madeeha is a more fascinating enigma.  Coolly received by her husband (she has to beg him for a kiss), she stays eerily composed, calm, and almost preternaturally accommodating while he repeatedly rejects her.  Nothing shakes her conviction that she “will be a good wife,” not even when Jason tells her, “This isn’t going to be a happy ever anything.”

Why is Jason so hostile to the bright, smiling woman he allegedly rescued, and brought to America? A woman who displays a steely determination to please him?  Why did they marry at all?

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Staged smoothly by John Langs, well-acted and consistently engaging, People of the Book also bears some glaring contrivances.  From the get-go, a rattled Jason looks incapable of turning out a book of any kind.  And for a very smart guy (with the wittiest lines and most cogent political analysis of the Iraq misadventure), Amir is remarkably oblivious to the intense sexual attraction that threatens his marriage.  He doesn’t even question his wife’s five-hour absence in the middle of the night to go after and comfort Jason – a guy who, really, they barely know.

The play’s payoff, in the end, is not just an unmasking of the deception and cheating undermining one marriage (small potatoes), but a revelation of the true horror of war the other is built on – a kind of horror the romanticizing Lynn can’t begin to grasp.

 Madeeha is the tragic emblem Medea, in the sense that she has murdered and married to get where she is – and could murder again if defied and abandoned. She is, as Jason blurts out to Lynn, “a monster.”  And the play’s melt-down climax is truly shocking. Realizing her husband is already betraying her, Madeeha strips off her clothes and puts a bag over her head. It’s a gasp-worthy allusion to the pornographic photos American soldiers took of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  “You kill, you terrorize,” she accuses, saying in effect, “You Americans made me what I am.”  And there is no going back. Madeeha and Jason are cursed with one another as enmeshed terrorists, prisoners of their own marital war.

Is the point that America is wed to the chaos and destruction we ignited in Iraq?  If so, can this marriage ever be mended?  Or ended?

That’s where People of the Book is going.  And as with any tragedy, including a Euripidean tragedy, there are no answers – only consequences, which leave the theater with you.

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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