Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi boldly examines sexual-power dynamics from a female perspective in his new play, “Collaborator.”
When an actress in pink satin pajamas appears in the aisle of Fremont’s West of Lenin theater, you are about to be wooed.
As the character of Cass strolls down to a stage dominated by a large bed, she cozies up to and chats up the audience — all part of the world-premiere staging of Yussef El Guindi’s new one-actor, one-act play “Collaborator.”
This flirtatiously engaging, 30-ish woman (played by Hayley Guthrie, with fizzy charm that gradually stiffens into ferocity) is out to win your complete attention and indulgence for the next 75 minutes or so, as she attempts to beguile you, amuse you, take you into her confidence — and, when things get more serious and sexually political, enlist you on her side.
by Yussef El Guindi. May 5-7, 12-14, West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle; $18-$20 (machamonkey.org).
Noted Seattle-based dramatist El Guindi’s plays often focus on Middle Eastern characters confronting the promising and problematic aspects of being an American immigrant.
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But for a contemporary male dramatist in this era, El Guindi is also unusually bold about examining sexual- power dynamics from a female perspective, as he did in his recent ménage a trois drama at ACT Theatre, “Threesome,” and continues to do, on a different scale, in “Collaborator.”
Under Anita Montgomery’s well-paced direction, Guthrie’s American-born Cass disarms with frank chatter about the exhibitionistic, needier aspects of being an actor. “You are encouraged to stare,” she advises. “Gobble me up! I’m going to measure my worth by how much attention you pay me tonight.”
This is humorous but glib Psychology 101. The Cass confession/manifesto gets more interesting as “Collaborator” delves into the contradictions between self-exposure and self-protection, and the dangers inherent in women openly “acting out” within a society where sexism (and just differing sexual expectations) can spell trouble.
Cheerful chatter gives way to colorful sexual anecdote, to disturbing memory and rage. Without giving much away, it’s safe to say that Cass’ dissection of a loaded street encounter with cat-callers is followed by a detailed account of a sexual episode in which pleasure crosses the line into defilement. Or does it?
The unseen “collaborator” of the title is introduced late in the game, from a description of a seemingly enlightened man from another culture whose perspective differs sharply from what Cass has experienced. Or is it just that in some matters, there’s no reconciling the perceptions of men and women, no possible collaboration?
It’s not clear what is intended ultimately in El Guindi’s hour-plus come-on/rumination, which gets ensnarled in a he said/she said debate toward the end that doesn’t shed much light on these matters. Does a woman like Cass simply expect it all — the preening, the attention, the lust — without any dark shadows of masculine aggression and desire to deal with? Or is she being bravely honest about theatrical/sexual dynamics, and taking charge of the debate on her own terms?
In the end, “Collaborator” seems more an exercise in rhetoric than a shared intimacy, and it fails to turn a one-sided conversation into a true debate. But it features an impressive piece of acting by Guthrie, and like every El Guindi play, it’s certainly a conversation-starter.