THE ARABIAN NIGHT OF THEATER
by Kestryl Lowrey
published November 13, 2007
now playing Off Off Broadway at the Baruch Performing Arts Center
through November 17
The story begins with an usher claiming that your tickets are not valid for the
section of the theatre you were told to sit in. This same usher then tells you off and threatens
you with physical violence when you point out that the seats you were moving toward were, in fact, labeled with a piece of tape displaying
your name. The usher stomps petulantly away as the house lights start to dim and… Oh wait.
Apparently this interlude was not intended to be a part of the production at all; it does not appear to be included in Jason Grote’s
unpredictable, multi-layered script. It’s unfortunate the way that the front-of-house staff can
impact one’s initial opinions of a piece.
But… moving on.
It is difficult to encapsulate 1001
in a few words. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering that the production showcases the
storytelling of Scheherazade (artfully enlivened by Roxanna Hope), telling the infinite and multi-stranded story of everything that ever has
been or ever will be. A script this frenetic has dangerous possibilities, but in the hands of
Ethan McSweeny, the pulse and momentum remain controlled but engaging. McSweeny has located
creative solutions to occasionally difficult or ambiguous stage directions, helping to give shape to a piece which otherwise could easily
become too amorphous in its breadth.
The plot is simultaneously intricate and simple; the modern relationship of
Dahna and Alan mirrors that of Scheherazade and Shahriyar (Matthew Rauch) in many ways, but that is not the point of this
production. The theme emerges, much more broadly, as storytelling—the ways that the fabric of the
world is created, unraveled, and recreated through the telling of tales. The heavy narration and
labyrinthine wordplay embedded in the script is managed well by the cast as a whole, though particular note goes to the humor injected by
Jonathan Hova’s One-Eyed Arab and John Livingstone Rolle’s Jorge Luis Borges.
Like many well-designed sets, the art of the space does not fully register until
near the conclusion of the piece. Rachel Hauck has wrapped the stage in graffiti tags which are
clearly intended to be words, though the specific words themselves are unintelligible. These
words, it later seems possible, are a representation of the stories that Scheherazade tells—the stories that must exist as evidence of the
reality of the world.
The script, the directing, the acting, and the set all stack up to an impressive
production, but still it feels as if something might be lacking. In exploring the
Israel-Palestine conflict and the West’s perception of Arab culture, the play sets itself up to contribute to a dialogue which stretches
beyond the doors of the theatre and into the fabric of daily life in the twenty-first century.
Beyond a few post-apocalyptic implications, however, 1001 contributes little to the ongoing
dialogues of global conflict and cultural identity. It is possible that, rather than make a
specific statement, Grote was trying to do what all good storytellers do: ask questions, instead of answer them.
kestryl.lowrey @ stageandcinema.com