Despite their definitive orientation as plays about Muslim women, Yussef El Guindi's two one-acts (based on stories by Salwa Bakr) convince us in many ways of the universality of female oppression. In Karima's City, Karima (the amazing Naila Azad) has a problem with wearing a bra, which she doesn't need, at the office, where her righteous co-workers (Marisa Vural and Grace Nassar) always do the right thing. Karima also has severe problems with keeping her mouth shut when she's expected to defer to her male co-workers; inflated political stuffed shirts; the defoliation of her neighborhood; and modern life in general-to the point where we meet her in a madhouse, compressed between walls that are closing in on her, reducing her natural curiosity, joy, and wonderfully free spirit to a sadly hopeless disenfranchisement. Azad's performance is superbly funny, blessed, and magical--an awakening to a new, unique, too painful reality. Vural is remarkable as Karima's traditionalist mother, Kamal Marayati as a magically realistic nurturing tree, and Mueen Jahan Ahmad as a strait-laced Office Manager--all are excellent in multiple oppressing roles. Every performance is a gem.
Such a Beautiful Voice Is Sayeda's is the delicate, moving tale of a good Muslim wife, the lovely Sayeda (a lively, enchanting Sarah Ripard), who one day falls in with her alter ego (Naila Azad), a free spirit-not a regular visitor in Muslim society-who convinces the obedient housewife that her beautiful singing voice should not go unheard. Sayeda's traditional husband, Abdul Hamid (Marayati), shuttles his beloved wife posthaste to the Doctor (Marc Casabani), who of course finds domestic stress and hysteria at the root of such female madness. Depressingly, the miraculous voice turns out to be only a squawking figment of Sayeda's wishful imagination.
Both stories, fascinating and compelling, powerful in their imagery, engage with the beauty and passion of their startling, almost unimaginable reality, painted in immaculate, breathing color by Deborah Lawlor, whose faultless and mesmerizing direction never stoops to, and never has to, underline the dangers and horrors of what should be an obsolete patriarchal society.
Presented by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 28-Dec. 11. (323) 663-1525.