The best part of any good thriller occurs when the protagonist finds herself trapped with the villain in a seemingly inescapable situation. In the quiet of the moment, before the inevitable series of gun fights or car chases, we’re left rooting for our hero(ine)—James Bond or Jason Bourne or Lisbeth Salander—to survive through sheer wit.
The leviathan of such tales is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a compilation written over centuries and, finally, compiled in 225 BCE. It has since been translated into several languages, made into Disney films and rehashed on the screen and stage.
UM’s School of Theatre and Dance offers a production of Mary Zimmerman’s version, The Arabian Nights. In this story, the king, Shahryar, made cynical by his former wife’s adultery, turns mad: He weds one woman each night only to slit her throat by morning. That is, until he marries Scheherezade. The clever girl tells the king stories, and stories within stories, creating a string of fairy tales, legends, farces and parables with cliffhanger endings that keep the king enthralled and her life spared.
The UM production, directed by Randy Bolton, is fantastic from the start. When the play begins, 15 people enter the circular arena of the Masquer Theatre, playing instruments and humming in a controlled chaos that’s harmonic and, despite the small space and small cast, reflective of a bustling Baghdad market. As the story develops, you’re allowed to lose yourself in a swiftly paced, romantic world populated by kings and paupers who, in the oldest of soap-opera twists, are confronted by ill and good fortune.
All 1,001 tales can’t be told in one sitting, of course. Zimmerman handpicked a handful that seem to speak to issues of women and war. Sound like a drag? It’s not. The stories are mostly amusing diversions peppered with hidden philosophical questions. There’s the titillating story of a woman who’s cheating on her husband with her butcher, her green grocer and a clarinetist, all of whom accidentally show up at her home the same evening, each with their phallic props—zucchini, rolling pins and such. (This play is not for children or the prudish). Then there’s the man who tries to marry a beautiful woman, only to be tricked into marrying a gasping, snarling, snorting monster. There’s also Sympathy, the all-knowing woman who challenges learned men to a battle of the wits involving everything from the Koran to enlightenment.
Alessia Carpoca’s costumes and Michael Monsos’ set add sensuous layers. Women wrapped in brightly colored silk scarves engage with men in feathered turbans and billowing pants. Metal lamps glowing in jade, red, aqua and burnt orange hang from the ceiling above Persian rugs, woven baskets and luxurious pillows and sofas. In the intimate Masquer, the lush decor, live music and constant motion make this a rich experience.
Actors play a multitude of characters, and they also help tell the story in the way Greek myths are told through a chorus. Kate Robischon as the witty Sympathy is fun to watch as she briskly takes down some sputtering hubris-filled men. Leah Joki, who earned her first college degree in 1980, nails the role of the coy Perfect Woman—one that is usually typecast for a younger girl. (“I may be the only person to have played this role that is also a member of AARP,” Joki notes in the playbill.) Patrick Yoder is especially commanding and delightful as an exuberant king who allows his wife-to-be to return to her true love. Colton Swibold has perfect timing for perhaps the oldest fart joke ever told.
Rebecca Schaffer as Scheherezade and G. Stephen Hodgson as Shahryar are two constants who keep the production clicking. Hodgson, who stole scenes as the Russian dance teacher in last year’s You Can’t Take It With You, delivers
here with a balance of intimidating and sympathetic. He easily reverts to the latter, a child under the spell of a good story and who is made a better king for it. Schaffer, small in frame next to Hodgson, dominates the stage when she’s zestfully conjuring each new story. She plays her character with a bewitching mischievousness that just barely masks the trauma of a woman on the verge of death night after night. Like a thriller’s protagonist, she’s doing anything to survive. But unlike Bond or Bourne, she portrays Scheherezade as a storytelling wizard who means to convert her aggressor, not destroy him.
The end may or may not be what you expect. Zimmerman’s added one more twist in her version. I won’t give it away, but I will say this: It’s controversial. Some people will find it a heavy-handed gesture that overshadows everything else, but I think it’s appropriate to add one more modern story to wrap up this web of ancient tales. After all, Shahryar’s knife comes in many forms.
The Arabian Nights continues at the Masquer Theatre Thu., Oct. 11 through Sat., Oct. 13, at 7:30 PM nightly. $16/$14 seniors and students.