“Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes” at Theater Schmeater

Theater Schmeater is one of those theatres in Seattle, like Live Girls! Theatre, whose work I admire and go see as often as time permits. The Schmee always does good work, whether it’s medieval farce, modern horror/drama, or original programming.

Based on the title and the description, “Jihad Jones…” was not what I was expecting. I was, admittedly, hoping for a lot more cheese and making fun of terrible Hollywood D-List movies. Instead, the plot centered around a basically unknown Arab American actor who refused to accept roles for lofty moral reasons, his frustrated agent, the agent’s fawning personal assistant, and two Hollywood big shots — the latest sexy starlett, and a big-shot director who got his start with documentaries about human suffering. The show is basically about the debate between “high” art and “good” art — is it better to focus on making the best you can out of what you’re given (in this case, a horrific script about Arab terrorists invading an American home and taking the family hostage), or is it better to make great art from only the best opportunities given (the main character’s current small production of Hamlet is held up as the holy grail of high art).

Aside from my initial, very mild, disappointment when I realized there wouldn’t be too many direct references to cheesy films, the show was very good. Despite a moral debate, the play was never heavy-handed, and didn’t take sides. Everyone had good reasons for doing what they do, whether it was accepting just about any role to gain more power, or refusing to play stereotypes in any situation. The debate was covered in brilliant slap-stick comedy and witty dialogue, which kept otherwise eye-rolling opinions amusing and exciting.

This play isn’t forced. It is what it is — a play. The actors maintain the 4th wall (although the staging was not proscenium but angled thrust, and brought the actors so close to the audience that we felt we were in the agent’s office), and other than the actors, props (one gunshot), and set, there were no live sound effects or music or anything. It was a traditionally-staged modern play, and it worked really well and was highly amusing.

Yussef El Guindi, the playwright, is based in San Fransisco and is an exciting new playwright. I definitely want to read more of his work now. And, it makes me think: is this the solution to theatre’s myriad “problems”? Or are we still appeasing the white middle class with liberal debate on racism in a traditional theatre setting? I mean, I am white and middle class, so I admit a little bias in the art form, as this is what I was raised with and am used to out of theatre, even though I don’t think it works half the time. But, is new work the key to fixing the whole supposedly sick situation? Do we need to just tear down our idols like Shakespeare and Mamet and move on to new playwrights? It is scary, as we artists keep hearing that there’s just not enough of a market for fully produced new works. But, as an artist, I want the art form to grow and I know that part of the way to do that is to introduce new work and new ideas.

I don’t know. I still like new theatre experiences, performance art, etc. But I will give this play a huge amount of credit for remaining true to the traditional aspects of theatre performance, and still being the best 80 minutes I’ve spent in an audience in awhile.

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