This Scheherazade is on steroids and she is not telling tales, she is taking heads!
This world premier play is a direct descendent of the “Arabian Nights” but with a feminist and nearly misanthropic twist, until its eventual happy ending. A sequel to the medieval Middle Eastern parable stories about the wily Scheherazade, the woman brought to the caliph’s palace to mate followed by swift execution, has been re-imagined and stood very much on its head and with tongue firmly wedged in cheek.
This Scheherazade is very different: if 7-Up is the “un-cola,” she is the “Un-Scheherazade.” Here, the woman is in the saddle as an evil Queen wreaking her vengeance by marrying them (minus actual mating, however – sorry, guys!) and then dispatching each serial husband to the gallows the same day.
Paco José Madden’s play is a riff on sexual politics as if tossed through a time-warp blender from the 1970’s by the likes of gloria Steinem and Kate Millett, those doyennes of second-generation feminism.
In fact, perhaps without realizing it, Madden also borrows from Dickens, for his Scheherazade is a classic reworking of Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations”, transported back in time to the Fertile Crescent but still using femininity as bait to lure an unsuspecting man to the coital bed and then to his doom when, like a preying mantis queen, she seeks to bite off his head.
This Scheherazade is now a Black Widow and appears to want revenge for her own torment from when the shoe was earlier on the other foot and she was forced nocturnally to bargain for her own life by telling a great tale but of course leaving it suspended in narrative mid-air, a literal cliff-hanger, so the caliph would spare her life for yet another day simply to hear the story’s end.
And so we meet her latest prey, young Ali, a shepherd boy newly arrived in the big city and at first excited to learn that he has been selected to marry the Queen. Ali of course thinks he has hit the matrimonial jackpot until he learns that she is the wrong kind of femme fatale and that this deal comes with a marital trapdoor – literally, on the gallows.
Ali is played with rapt innocence as well as eventual cunning by the very talented Steve Lee. The queen, meanwhile, who first tempts him and then taunts him, is the gifted Gillian Shelly, who you can also see in the Fringe production of Super Claudio Bros.
Madden has a clown’s sensibility and so do his ensemble of players who are almost without exception all gifted with skill at comic relief. They act up and act out their parts broadly, just as Madden evidently intends. Especially noteworthy in this sense on stage is Ivan Zizek, who plays numerous roles, sometimes chewing the scenery in the process. Be sure to see him as the pregnant husband carrying the offspring all the way to (thankfully off-stage but audibly painful) childbirth.
Ali’s five stories – the fisherman; the boastful man and the wise queen; the stoned virgin; the constant weaver; and the father and his three daughters in an “ugly contest” – are his efforts to educate Scheherazade on the responsibilities of being human as well as a benevolent ruler. Ultimately Ali succeeds in taming her lust for vengeance against men and (cue wedding bells) they marry and mate.
Maybe we are lucky that there are not literally 1001 tales, but several of them hint at a promising knack for exposition amid much mime and occasional pageantry, and the play frequently exudes a goofy charm.
But 1001 Days is seriously over-long, running at least 90 minutes and seeming even longer, so an editorial red pencil would be a merciful act to give this play more audience appeal. This is truly a case where less would surely have been more, but unfortunately Madden (who shows genuine artistic promise) give us entirely too much of a good thing.
written and directed by Paco Jose Madden
produced by Classique Nouveau
reviewed by David Hoffman
Running time: 95 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?