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Flash Review 2, 10-7: Night Light
Young Vic's "Arabian Nights" Illuminates the Darkness

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

The best, simplest, most accurate way to relate to you the transformation that I underwent Thursday night at the New Victory Theater, where the Young Vic Theatre from England is presenting its new version of "The Arabian Nights" through October 22, would be to simply cast my room in darkness, and then light a single candle. Good stories, well-told, don't just entertain; they illumine. And potent psycho-dramas don't just wreak havoc; they provide good fodder for stories, in the hands of a gifted allegorist and storyteller. Such a psycho-drama affects King Shahrayar (played here by Paul Bhattacharjee) when he is betrayed by his wife. He swears that he will never make himself vulnerable to such pain again, and for the next 1,000 nights, marries a different woman each night, beheading his betrothed in the morning. Until, that is, Shaharazad volunteers for the job.

Shaharazad (Priyanga Elan) hatches a plan to stop the killing. Imbued with the power of story, she offers herself to the king, asking only that she be allowed to bring her sister Dinarzad along. Shortly before dawn, Dinarzad asks Shaharazad to tell one of her amazing stories. She tells one... or most of one: If the king wants to hear the end of the cliff-hanger "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," he must postpone his bride's demise another dawn. He does so...again, and again, as Shaharazad continues to regale him with stories.

Most of the stories are ones in which light shines on dark places: be those dark places real caves or caves of the heart. And they are all, invariably, about seeing and not seeing. A blindfolded shoemaker leads the captain of the thieves to the home of Ali Baba, who has stolen his gold. When the captain returns later, disguised as a merchant, and is invited into Ali Baba's home, it is a wise servant girl, Marjana (Martina Laird) who figures out that the 40 barrels of oil the visitor has brought with him hide 39 armed thieves.

Next, a beggar-jester (Tristan Sharps) amuses a tailor and his wife by faking his death; when the tailor jokingly stuffs a trout down the beggar's throat and the beggar starts choking, the couple doesn't realize until too late that he's not joking.

Later, a sultan (Sharps again) sees Sidi Nu'uman mercilessly and repeatedly whipping his horse (Laird), and calls him on the carpet. Sidi (a role shared by Paul Chahidi and Richard Katz) tells of when he was a newlywed and didn't realize until too late that his blushing bride, who daintily ate just a little rice every night with a dropper, was in fact enjoying midnight repasts at the local cemetery. The sorceress, he narrates, turned him into a dog; a good wizard turned him back into a man and gave him a potion to turn his sorceress wife into a horse. Having heard the explanation, the sultan presses: Is it not enough that the wife has been turned into a horse? Does he have to whip her every day? This time, what the man has not seen is how he is in fact still under a spell -- the spell of revenge. Sidi returns home, and there is a poignant moment when he reaches out a hand, and Laird, whinnying, kicking the ground, knees and head bent, cowers at first, until Sidi finally just strokes her mane.

A strikingly similar moment recurs in the penultimate tale, "The Story of the Envious Sisters." The sisters in question are wracked by jealousy after another sister marries the King while they (by their own wishes) are stuck with the baker and the butcher. So, volunteering to serve as their sister's midwives, they quickly substitute a dog, cat, and piece of wood for three successive babies, setting the infants afloat in a stream. The King, dissuaded from decapitating his wife, instead locks her up in a cell, commanding others to spit at her whenever they pass. Meanwhile, the real children are raised by the steward and, through an odyssey that makes them confront their own demons (they must make their way through a forest of keening black stones, at the peril of being turned into black stones themselves should they heed the stones' pleas to look back), eventually reunite with their father. When a wise talking bird (manipulated by Elan, who also plays the wife) tells him these are his own children, he realizes his error, and how he has wronged his wife. When he goes to release her, she, too, cowers at first, until she finally lets him embrace her, and embraces her children.

By this time, it has become clear to every five-year-old in the audience that Shaharazad's stories are not meant just to distract the king; she is showing him himself. Eventually, that light filters into King Shahrayar's heart. Her bank of stories run dry, Shaharazad begins her last story, the one of her, the king, and the baby she reveals they are expecting. It is a story only the king can decree a never-ending one, and he does so.

The saga of the Arabian Nights is in fact an old story, one of our oldest. But what made it real for me Thursday was a vivid, breathing cast of nine actor-singer-dancers, who spun their tales without reservations, without holding back, with no holds barred. It's a beautiful assemblage of stories, and at times grisly ones -- ones that, ironically, would probably not pass muster in the musty-minded halls of a newly censorious Congress. (Characters are torn limb from bloody limb, only to be sewn back together to mask their gruesome deaths.) Fortunately, tho, the Young Vic -- and, again and again, our own New Vic -- seems to realize that kids have no problem seeing severed body parts on stage, or, on the other hand, bedded couples. (Each night, Shaharazad and Shahrayar bed down by wrapping a sheet around themselves, lyrically, as she pronounces, "And the day melted into night.") What children's theater really means is theater that returns us to children's values: values of easy forgiveness, of wild and unbridled imagination, of not only suspended disbelief in the artifice of theater, but suspended cynicism about the light it shines on our own hearts.

And of play. The charm of this "Arabian Nights," adapted and directed by Dominic Cooke, is due mostly, I think, to the sense that the cast itself is play-acting -- making up and acting out a series of stories for us, the ornate New Victory transformed into a raw campfire. It's a very physical play-acting, made musical by much Mideast-style social dancing. Because everybody, including Shaharazad, plays multiple characters, they race around making costume and character changes. Laird is a stand-out, particularly for her movement, progressing from Shahrayar's original adulterous wife, to Ali Baba's clever and nimbly belly-dancing servant Marjana, and to the bride-sorceress-horse Amina, with double roles in two other stories. So is Sharps, an unashamed fool as the Little Beggar, a terrifying captain of the thieves, and a truly noble sultan in other stories. Natasha Gordon is luminous as the wise and courageous princess-adventurer of the last piece who finds her birth parents in the end, as well as Shaharazad's sister. Yasmin Wilde jumps from down-in-the-dirt envious women roles to providing the Heavenly, haunting, Sheila Chandra-esque soundscape with her ethereal singing in other tales. Bhattacharjee's Shahrayar is nuanced; rather than playing him as omnipotent, Bhattacharjee makes clear from the start that this king's arbitrary, vengeful, fearful wielding of his power is in fact his weakness.

But there are really no weak links in this versatile cast of nine. And the two musicians, Rebecca Austen-Brown and Damien Manning, use a well-chosen selection of Mideastern-sounding percussion and string instruments to add a certain timeless, hamsin-blown vastness to the proceedings. Some of the credit here goes of course to composer Gary Yershon, as well as sound designer Crispian Covell. Movement director Liz Ranken contributes to the overall sweep, I think, of this fast-paced yarn which, even tho it lasts two hours, leaves you wanting just one more story. Illusionist Paul Kieve, as well as designer Georgia Sion and lighting designer Johanna Town, provide a magic setting. The associate director was Thea Sharrock.

So...I guess there's no need to bring you into my darkened room where I can light a candle and demonstrate. We have those rooms already, those darkened places in which suddenly a single light shines brilliantly, illuminating not just the outer room but the inner room inside us. They're called theaters. The guides are called actors (or dancers) but really I think it would be more accurate to call them -- or at least the ones I saw Thursday night -- guides. They take us by the hand, they lead us into a dark place whose blackness scares us at first, but they tell us not to be afraid. "Just ignore the severed arms and heads, it's the moral that counts, and it's one of utter redemption and light. It all comes out right in the end." And then they turn on the light and there are no demons, only the angels of our childhood, returned to roost, restored to their natural place, as the guides of our hearts.

For more information on "Arabian Nights," please visit the New Victory's web site.

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