A simple tale about how tales are often more than simple, Carol Wolf’s The Thousandth Night at MetroStage is an enjoyable little punch to the gut.
The story has a number of characters, but only one actually onstage: Guy de Bonheur (Marcus Kyd), one of the last, if not the last, remaining members of an acting troupe in France under Nazi occupation. We, the audience, take on the role of a room full of gendarmes, Bonheur’s fellow Frenchman who are taking a backseat role to the Nazi gestapo. Bonheur’s been charged with performing subversive material, but his train to the prison camp was sabotaged, and he’s taking advantage of the brief time to beg us, the French collaborators, to quietly look the other way and let him run off. Why? Because, surely, there was some mistake in putting a simple actor on a train with political enemies of the Nazis.
To prove his innocence, Bonheur spends some time with us performing selections from his company’s signature adaptation of the Arabian Nights stories, and the bulk of the play consists of a cycle: Bonheur begins one of the stories, interrupts himself a few times to explain how it would have been performed if he’d had his whole company with him, is led into a tangent about how life has been under occupation, resumes the story until he is interrupted by the Nazis’ search for the saboteurs or a new train, and then wraps the story up. Along the way, however, we may or may not realize that he’s slowly letting us onto something more than what we think we’re getting.
In a play like this – with a nearly-bare stage, a few simple, evocative lights (designed by Alexander Keen) to indicate approaching trains and Bonheur’s shifting attentions, one lone actor and a plain structure – every little detail looms large, from the expressions on Kyd’s face to the slightest deviations from the Arabian Nights fables. Kyd, under John Vreeke’s direction, wisely and softly underplays every moment, knowing he doesn’t need to weep and wail for us to see that he misses his departed fellow actors, for instance. His performance is engaging and completely unforced – almost a master class in making what is actually quite difficult “look easy.” As well, when Bonheur switches from portraying a baker to a soldier to a sultan, the change is marked by a plain and clear adjustment of a scarf and an accent. The overall effect of the repeating cycle and the uncluttered approach is something like that of a musical theme with variations. And it is those variations that add up to Bonheur’s, and Wolf’s, ultimate, troubling lesson.
That lesson, while a familiar one, can be seen coming, but its power comes not from its novelty or insight, but from our emotional involvement in it, spending the play’s 70 minutes so intimately with Bonheur, in the role of his gendarmes. The journey is pleasant, with plenty of great, light humor in the antics of the Arabian Nights tales, but despite the weighty theme, the play, in its brief runtime, can’t help but feel a little bit more like a perfectly prepared hors d’oeuvre than a full meal.
However, MetroStage is performing The Thousandth Night in repertory with Underneath the Lintel, a similarly simple-but-deep one-man play. The two short works show together on most (but not all) Saturdays and Sundays during the run, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, so for those who might have to travel a long way to get to MetroStage in Alexandria, VA, seeing both in a day is recommended. That said, anyone who does make the journey for The Thousandth Night alone will be rewarded with everything poor, kind Guy de Bonheur can give you in the brief time he has been allotted.
The Thousandth Night by Carol Wolf . Directed by John Vreeke . Starring Marcus Kyd . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.