The Arabian Nights is perhaps the quintessential Constellation Theatre show, and therefore ideal for them to revisit ten years after they first presented it, as part of their anniversary season. Directed by founder Allison Arkell Stockman, it would serve well as an introduction to the popular company for unfamiliar Washingtonians, and also offers a chance for longtime fans to celebrate Constellation’s first decade, and consider where their next one will take them.
Theatregoers drawn to Constellation for their world-spanning storytelling will appreciate the variety of tales from the Golden Age of Islam included in this version of the Scheherazade story, written by Mary Zimmerman. The many fans of frequent Helen Hayes fixture Tom Teasley and his semi-improvisational live music will be excited to see him again behind the stage, throwing his talent with abandon into pipes, keyboards, percussion instruments and synthesizers. And all who love Constellation, and particular director Stockman, for their way with large ensembles, will enjoy the passion the eleven actors share with each other.
Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights avoids the familiar chestnuts about Aladdin and his genie, Ali Baba and his forty thieves, and the like; it instead focuses on a whirlwind tour through the various genres the format can sustain. As Scheherazade (Veronica del Cerro) finds herself forcefully wedded to king Shahryar (Ryan Sellers), who marries a woman every night and then executes her in the morning, she is forced to hold his attention for night after night in order to survive. She draws him in with raunchy tales of cheating spouses, romantic comedies of lovers in disguises, and sad, moral tales of people who lose all they hold dear to their own hubris – always cutting herself off when the morning comes and thus enticing Shahryar to extending her life one more night to hear the conclusion.
Naturally, we are drawn along with these tales. A.J. Guban’s lovely, sheltering set gives the cast plenty of room to scamper around, while Teasley plays the mood; they weave into and out of stories-within-stories-within-stories with deceptive ease, thanks to Stockman’s smooth arrangements. Most pull triple or quadruple duty: for example, Kevin Sockwell displays a sympathetic gravitas as Harun al-Rashid (an ancient king who figures within the top layer of many of the stories), but then amiably humiliates himself as a bridegroom undone by flatulence.
For another, Surasree Das is a childlike reminder of the deadly stakes as Scheherazade’s younger sister (next in line for Shahryar’s bloody wedding bed if the elder sister fails), but then leaps at the chance to be one of the contenders in a battle for a mysterious purse. That scene is improvised every night, and judging by the enthusiasm of the whole cast, no matter which two of them get to participate, the results will be thrilling and hilarious.
Part of the reason this production is a Constellation Theatre ideal is because of all these strengths I’ve mentioned; but at the same time, there are certain theatrical preferences the company displays, which some viewers may feel lead to missed opportunities, based upon their own preferences. One choice the company makes in this Arabian Nights that is most revealing is its ending. The play ends with a cacophony of overlapping stories, followed by the anticipated happy ending of Scheherazade’s marriage to a repentant Shahryar. There is a mighty celebration, and then the lights go down on that ecstatic moment.
The Arabian Nights
closes June 4, 2017
Details and tickets
However, in the original production Zimmerman created (as described in her script) – as well as many other theatres’ presentations over the years – at the last moment, before the lights go down, there is an interruption: the sound of air raid sirens.
Especially considering that Zimmerman wrote her version in the era of the invasion of Iraq, it’s not hard to imagine the impact that moment can have after seeing two hours of Islam-infused stories. But Constellation chooses not to include it, simply ending on the raucous dance.
Now, the company has never shied from dark storytelling or painful emotions: witness their Equus, their Lieutenant of Inishmore, or even their Urinetown. Yet that final twist was included when Constellation first staged Arabian Nights and made a name for themselves in 2007. The Constellation house style as it has evolved since then has tended towards the ever-more epic, the larger sizes of gestures, the bolder colors and choices. It’s quite reasonable, especially given our distance from the fall of Baghdad, to remove that overtly political moment. The result, while clearly inspired by the rich storytelling tradition of the Islamic Golden Age, is modernized (almost) to the point of being apolitical. It is left up to you to draw deeper meanings from the proceedings. [Editor’s note: Allison Stockman, responding to our inquiry, said that the last moments mentioned are stage directions from the original production. No text was eliminated.]
And so it is up to only you, the potential theatregoer, to decide whether this choice of the ending suggests the kind of approach you want to see in your theatre. If so, there is virtually no way you will not be enthralled; the company is too skilled at jumping about, landing jokes, and playing tearful death scenes to fail in this regard. Many patrons at opening night had permanent smiles on their faces from start to finish for good reason.
If this approach goes against your preferences however, and you do not attend, while you will miss some sublime scenes – such as the crash course in Islam’s poetic and spiritual scope given by Sympathy the Learned (a luminous Lilian Oben) – ultimately, you will not miss anything more or less than an unadulterated, great time.
The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman, adapted from The Book Of The Thousand Nights And One Night . Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman . Featuring Shravan Amin, Surasree Das, Veronica del Cerro, Thomas Howley, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Yesenia Iglesias, Matthew Aldwin McGee, Dallas Milholland, Lilian Oben, Ryan Sellers, Kevin Sockwell . Composer/Performer: Tom Teasley . Scenic Design: A.J. Guban . Costume Design: Erik Teague . Lighting Design: Jason Arnold . Fight Director: Casey Kalea . Properties Design: Matthew Aldwin McGee . Dance Choreography: Veronique Kim Tran . Assistant Director: Jenna Duncan . Production Stage Manager: Rachel S. Hamilton . Stage Manager: Matt Balfour . Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.