Hotter Than Egypt, written by Yussef El Guindi and directed by John Langs, is a captivating play that you will be increasingly drawn into as the story unfolds. I was lucky enough to witness the world premiere at A Contemporary Theater (ACT), eleven years after El Guindi began Hotter Than Egypt during the Egyptian Revolution. The play follows two separate couples with seemingly little in common, as their lives become more and more intertwined. The plot plays on common tropes such as American ignorance to other cultures, and middle aged couples who have lost the spark in their relationship. The play has an intimate feeling throughout, taking unexpected and original turns while expressing enlightening commentary on broken marriages and power dynamics. This play declared it’s excellence to me through well developed characters, fabulous set design, riveting and topical social commentary.
The play follows Jean (Jen Taylor) and Paul (Paul Morgan Stetler), a white American couple from Wisconsin, on their travels in Cairo. They leave their college age children behind to embark on a trip to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary. It is revealed later that their trip was planned to coincide with Paul’s work trip. While in Cairo, long-buried troubles within their marriage begin to surface as they interact with recently engaged Egyptian tour guides, Maha (Naseem Etemad) and Sief (Wasim No’mani). They soon find that working through their issues will not be easy, as the couples’ lives become increasingly complicated. Ahmad Kamal’s role as a boat driver, museum guard and door person really bring the setting to life. His range pulls the story together and allows for the play to feel more dimensional adding in plots that would otherwise be difficult to explore with only the two couples.
In an interview excerpted from the program notes, El Guindi discusses how immigration and travel has impacted his life. Born in Egypt, raised in London, and primarily living in Seattle, El Guindi uses his experiences surrounding religion and culture to examine the intersection of ethnicity and politics. He draws on his own experiences, and he tries to be aware of the natural awkwardness that people have with one another. Having had to negotiate going back and forth from Egypt to England and having to adjust, coming to America impacted the way El Guindi views travel and the concept of home. I think it’s relatable to people because we all have experience being the outsider. Another big component to the piece is its examination of the power dynamics between (wealthy) Western tourists and locals; tourists who claim to care about “experiencing the culture” often treat the locals as afterthoughts.
The set was full of small details such as partially sandy, tiled floors and a decorated half wall at different stages of deterioration. There are also plenty of small props such as clothing, baggage, food and furniture. The stage lies in the middle of the theater with seats arranged around in a complete circle at an incline allowing the entirety of the audience to get a great view from wherever they may be seated.
It was refreshing to see a story that was about Western tourists having to adjust to and navigate the Middle-East. Western tourists often expect the world to adapt to them, as if they are the center of the world and should never have to compromise. They expect the environment they enter to alter in their presence. The play attempts to tackle western “superiority and elitism,” examining the ignorance of Western Cultures superficial knowledge of the cultures. The play incorporates a mixture of explicit innuendos about the power dynamics men and women share in a relationship, and joking jabs that portray their stress regarding the lives they live. This adds a rich sense of depth in the couple's relationships. So often plays and films focus solely on one cause of a breaking relationship, despite humans being far more complicated. There is a sense that the characters are real people with three dimensional problems, not one of which can take the sole blame for the conflicts in the play. They have to grapple with their identities being closely tied to their roles as parents and partners so much so that they forget to work on themselves. This struck a chord with me, especially with Jean and Maha, who felt their future was pre-arranged because they had to give up their dreams for the men in their lives. I could get neither couple’s situations out of my head after leaving the theater.
There was never a dull moment in Hotter Than Egypt. It will have you laughing, sighing and questioning the characters' decisions. This performance will leave you pondering over its characters, their motives, the overarching themes of loyalty, and exploration of differences. Hotter Than Egypt is a profound yet comical analysis of the ethics of modern tourism, relationships, and morality.