note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
The power of imagination and the gift of a timeless, precious jewel - storytelling - are driving forces in Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater’s fascinating production of Dominic Cooke’s 2-1/2-hour adaptation of “Arabian Nights”.
As theatergoers enter, a mystical atmosphere permeates the room. They’re requested to avoid stepping on the brightly-painted floor, (which doubles as the stage), decorated with Persian tapestries and miniatures. The intricate, colorful design resembles a magic Arabian carpet, while the back wall is swathed in multi-colored pastel drapes.
Welcome to the enchanting world of “Arabian Nights,” where magic and marvelous storytelling, clever acting and staging, sweep theatergoers back to days of yore, when traveling troubadours and actors thrilled crowds with their street performances, that included everything from dancing, singing, illusions, puppetry and acting.
Engaging the audience’s rapt attention through eye contact and incidental interaction, this multi-talented cast performs in English, Arabic, and American Sign Language, ensuring nobody misses a trick and enjoys every minute. And they do, regardless of age, race or gender. The cast is hypnotic as it enacts five Persian, Middle East and South Asian folk tales, some dating as far back as the 8th century, neatly tied together by a central thread.
Playing multiple roles are Vincent E. Siders, Evelyn Howe, Paige Clark, Alexander Cook, Ramona Lisa Alexander, Debra Wise, Elbert Joseph, Ahmad Maksoud, and Ibrahim Miari, who are all outstanding.
After King Shahrayar (Vincent E. Siders) discovers his beloved wife is carrying on an affair, he orders her to be beheaded immediately, becomes a misogynist, and vengefully marries a different bride nightly, beheading her the following morning. He has executed many brides, until the vizier’s wise daughter, Shahrazad, (Evelyn Howe) devises a plan to marry the king, save herself, or any potential successors, by using her gift of storytelling to keep the king interested, while infusing life lessons and melting his heart.
As Shaharazad enthralls her younger sister, Dinarzad, (Paige Clark) and the jaded, angry king with her nightly stories, the multi-age audience hang onto every syllable and movement. Her stories are filled with greed, envy, jealousy, humor, love, understanding and kindness, starting with Ali Baba (Ibrahim Miari) and the 40 Thieves. A black-cloaked caravan of thieves turns into mounds of glittering gold riches, and, yes, he really does say the magic passwords, “Open sesame”. The story isn’t pretty but has enough suspense and intrigue to keep the king’s interest. Boston star Ramona Lisa Alexander adds brightness and humor as the wise slave girl who thwarts the thieves, saves her master and his family.
As the executioner waits in the wings with Shaharazad’s anxious father (Alexander Cook), the young bride regales the king with the end of the tale, then launches into another --- the story of the Little Beggar, a tale of justice and righteousness, with a domino effect.
The king wants more. Armed with large puppets, including a huge bird with talons, a boat balancing on Miari’s head, a flying carpet, and other wondrous sound, stage effects and props, Shaharazad launches into the beloved tale of Es-Sindibad the Sailor. A few months have passed, and Shaharazad has successfully entertained the king, saving herself and other young women.
She injects levity with her brief tale of “How Abu Hassan Broke Wind,” sending the king into gales of laughter.
In the second act, after 817 stories told over two years, Shaharazad captivates with her magical tale of an angry husband who married a lovely demure woman, who, by night, was a corpse-eating demon. She intones the theme of forgiveness, as the audience shudders at this mythological tale, then tells her longest, most compelling, tell-tale story of all - “The Story of the Envious Sisters,” which the cast cleverly enacts.
After 1,001 nights, Shaharazad declares the time for suffering is over - its time for rejoicing and happiness, which this production delivers and spreads, with aplomb.
BOX INFO: Dominic Cooke’s 2-1/2-hour adaptation of “Arabian Nights,”directed by Daniel Gidron, presented by the Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, through Dec. 31: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; also, Dec. 28,29, at 3 p.m.; Dec. 30,31, at 3,8 p.m. Ticket prices vary, $45-$15. Call 866-811-4111 or visit CentralSquareTheater.org.