A Thousand Stories Deep


Show #63: 1001, Just Theater, May 31

Rachel Rajput and Anthony Nemirovsky in 1001. Photo by Jay Yamada

By Sam Hurwitt

The Thousand Nights and One Night is a book with no author, or rather a book with so many authors that the question of authorship is meaningless. The collection of Middle Eastern folk stories has been kicking around in one form or another since at least the 10th century, picking up stories from different regions on its travels. Some of the most familiar stories, such as the adventures of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba, were probably authentic to the region but tossed into the book much later by European translators. But that’s the nature of the work from the start: it amasses story upon story and story within story, with the characters in one story pausing to tell another story until the tale you’re hearing might be nestled four stories deep to begin with.

The framing device for the collection is brilliantly suited to accommodate this endless accumulation of yarns. King Shahriyar has concluded through personal experience that all wives cheat on their husbands sooner or later, so he’s taken up the habit of marrying a virgin bride one day and killing her the next morning, so that she never has time to deceive him. After a while of this the kingdom has nearly run out of virgins, so the wazir’s daughter, Scheherazade, volunteers to be Shahriyar’s next bride. On their wedding night she starts telling a captivating story but doesn’t finish it, so he delays her execution so that he can hear the end, but no sooner does she end one tale than another begins, every night ending on a cliffhanger to keep him wanting more, and so it goes for 1001 nights, by which time their relationship has deepened considerably.

It’s a storytelling engine of limitless possibilities, and in part that’s what makes Jason Grote’s play 1001 work so beautifully.  What sounds at first like a credible if rather bawdy Arabian folktale begins to sound more and more like the plot of a very familiar movie. Sinbad the sailor recounts his encounter with Jorge Luis Borges, and Osama bin Laden pops up as a midnight horror movie host reciting a version of Vincent Price’s “Thriller” patter. Appropriately enough for the source material, none of these stories are even finished before they segue into another one. More and more the stories keep finding their way back to Alan and Dahna, a young Jewish guy and Palestinian-American woman living together in New York, and as their story develops and resonates with the other stories, it becomes increasingly clear why.

Grote’s 1001 was originally slated to make its Bay Area at Marin Theatre Company back in November of 2008, but it was bumped from the season when MTC learned that another, higher profile play based on the same source material, Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, would be playing Berkeley Repertory Theatre at the same time. Two years later, the four-year-old East Bay company Just Theater is finally giving 1001 and its playwright their local debut, making a marvelous case for just how much Grote’s novel take on the old stories is in a class by itself.

Just Theater co-artistic director Jonathan Spector’s tightly paced and inventive staging at the intimate Berkeley City Club captures the humor of the script particularly well. No matter how many times characters burst out of corners of the set to interrupt a scene in progress, it never stops being funny. The piles of books everywhere in Drew Kaufman’s set double as seats and platforms, and sometimes open up to reveal oversize objects hidden within, and a large book might double as a laptop computer.

The hints that this will be no ordinary Arabian Nights fantasia show up from the very beginning, despite Christine Crook’s luscious Arabian costumes. Anthony Nemirovsky’s likeably boyish Shahriyar is prone to amusingly anachronistic malapropisms. “Do not fear me,” he says. “I am genital. No, gentile.  No, gentle!”

The cast is flawless. Nemirovsky also plays the earnest Alan, just as Rachel Rajput doubles as a commanding, enticing Scheherazade and discontented Dahna. A turbaned Aleph Ayin opens the tale as an engagingly shifty bazaar storyteller who seems at least half con man, and he also turns up as a valiant and very serious Palestinian guide and as a cocky, jaded Sinbad. Kathryn Tkel delights as a giddy, doomed bride of Shahriyar; a lisping, very young object of incestuous desire; and Dahna’s constantly primping, meddling sister. Michael Barrett Austin plays a creepily obsessed lover, a charming suitor, a fanatically anti-Muslim college student and an outrageously mustachioed Flaubert. Lance Gardner is a stolid wazir, a forbidding father, a sputtering derelict raconteur, and an awfully amusing bin Laden and Borges.

“What are any of us but a collection of stories?” Scheherazade tells her sister Dunyazade (Tkel again, somewhere under that burka). “Change the story of a nation, and you change that nation.” The whole show is a spellbinding, often hilarious and intricately tangled celebration of the power of storytelling, as any work inspired by The Thousand Nights and One Night should be, but it’s a relief when the far-flung threads begin to come together more than one might have thought possible. When all’s said and done–or at least as done as a story can ever be in the Arabian Nights–it’s a fantastic production of a brilliant play that makes for an almost giddily exciting evening at the theater. Now that Bay Area audiences finally have the chance to see this play, they’d be foolish to pass it up.

1001 runs through June 20 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. http://www.justtheater.org

Bonus links: My East Bay Express reviews of Just Theater’s I Have Loved Strangers and Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights.

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