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Matthew Rauch in '1001
Ethan McSweeny, recent director of the successful 100 Saints You Should Know (review), has now turned his attention to 1001 Arabian nights you should know, the New York premiere of 1001 by Jason Grote. This entertaining, politically relevant spin on the Arabian Nights uses a stories within stories approach that explores the possibility of the healing redemption of a good narrative. Confronting Kipling's assertion that "east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet," Grote has west meet east to find that they share a common story. The question posed: What will the east and west do with this common story?

The play begins with an inert body on a modern hospital gurney with stories and their tellers springing to life around the body. Taking the Arabian Nights out of its usual framing story of Scheherazade (Roxanna Hope) and her life-saving creativity, Grote first establishes her character in the modern day world of soft drinks. The action travels from the hospital back to more familiar ground and the homicidal sultan Shahriyar (Matthew Rauch) who butchers his young brides in revenge for a former wife's past infidelities. Before his bride can even finish redecorating the bedroom, she meets a gruesome end. Scheherazade, daughter of the vizier (John Livingstone Rolle) volunteers to be the next bride, sacrificing herself for the sake of her country, the sultanate, which is dying alongside its young women. Her plan is to fend off what appears to be the inevitable through the fervent use of cliffhangers. Although this is used comically, this Scheherazade is a would-be martyr who disarms those around her rather than arming herself. She is a confident creator who has no doubt as to whether she will live out the night.

One of the stories Scheherazade tells to the suddenly passive Sultan is about Yahya Al-Husayni (Drew Cortese) who is tragically in love with his twin sister Princess Maridah (Mia Barron). The young princess is murdered. The narcissistic prince finds a slave girl who resembles his sister and convinces himself that she can become his Princess Maridah. This story of the prince's attempt to make the slave girl fit his particular story is a failed rewrite of reality that's not just the stuff of folk tales but typifies out tendency to revise our life stories.

Scheherazade's tangle of stories is often comic, which can be effective in a Pythonesque way with its physicality and malapropisms that mix blast furnaces with blasphemies. However, the silly humor sometimes thuds alongside the tragedy of children killed at the hands of their parents, and land wars that seem endless. The voice of Alan Dershowitz (Jonathan Hova) speaks at one time of "knee jerk opposition to Israel," and women and children are shot at in Gaza. The gulf between the two political stances can be disastrous for comedy, a case of whistling in the dark.

The cast on the whole have much to do and have the capacity to do so. Of special note is Roxanna Hope who holds up well the burden of storytelling that "weighs heavily on her hips and back." The clever use of multi-media enhances the story telling; as when action evolves under the watchful gaze of Hitchcock's Jimmy Stewart or the puppet Osama Bin Laden or when one couple's story is told via instant messaging with the screen name of shrzad1001.

There are brief appearance by Jorge Luis Borges and Gustave Flaubert to describe their own storytelling methods, passing references to Edward Said's theories on orientalism and debatable contributions from Andrew Lang and Richard Francis Burton ( past translators of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights). However, though they are more than a passing influence on the stories, their significance can be lost in the scramble.

The set design by Rachel Hauck, also from 100 Saints, makes creative use of the box-like Nagelberg stage. Especially effective is the sound by Lindsay Jones and DJ Arisa, whether evoking the sighs of the desert, a Brooklyn dance scene or the cacophony of war. As the play continues to spin, time travels forward, and the blue skies over the desert become the blue skies over Chelsea. The Hudson becomes the Nile or the Jordan River. The play becomes the story of Alan and his Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is NY's subway tunnels, and Alan has survived a catastrophic attack on the city by suicide bombers. More modern day vignettes emerge, and the stories begin to fold in on themselves, becoming self-referential and echoing of recent newspaper headlines of talks about peace talks that never begin. Are there modern day stories a Scheherazade can tell that will stop a murder in Gaza, in Israel now?

Playwright: Jason Grote
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Cast: Mia Barron (The Virgin Bride/Dunyazade/Princess Maridah/Juml/Kuchuk Hanem/Lubna), Drew Cortese (Yahya Al-Husayni/Asser/Gustave Flaubert/Orthodox Jewish Student/ Voice of Moderator/Eunuch), Roxanna Hope (Scheherazade/Dahna), Jonathan Hova (The One-Eyed Arab/Juml's Master, Mostafa/Slave/Sinbad/Voice of Alan Dershowitz/Djinn), Matthew Rauch (Shahriyar/Alan), John Livingstone Rolle (Jorge Luis Borges/Emir Ghassan/Horrible Monster/Osama Bin Laden/Wazir).
Set Design: Rachel Hauck
Costume Design: Murell Horton
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
DJ: DJ Arisa Sound
Page 73 Production at Baruch Performing Arts Center, Nagelberg Theater - 55 Lexington Ave., 212-352-3101
Opening 10/31/2007. Runs to 11/17/07
Mon.- Sat. @ 8 p.m., Sat. matinees @ 3 p.m.
Running time: 105 minutes. No intermission. No late seating.
Tickets: $25-35
Based upon the 10/30/07 performance

©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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