Theater Review: 'Arabian Nights' by Post Five

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

A gentleman farting at such great length on his wedding day that, when he returns to his home country after ten years of shamed self-exile, he learns the occasion of his fart has become a celebrated milestone might, in itself, not seem like satisfactory material for a night at the theater.

When the story is one of many, however, which unfold, often out of each other, like wooden Russian dolls, and it's brought to life with wit, energy and the kind of ribald sensuality that is often so absent from American theater it seems almost to have been invented on the spot, it's satisfactory indeed.

While "Arabian Nights," written by Mary Zimmerman and staged by Post Five Theatre, is essentially about storytelling, the experience of watching it is like nibbling on rich hors d'ouvres. Each bite is scrumptous, and, if it's not exactly a meal in the sense of having protagonists one cares about, or plots, which span three acts, the experience is both memorable and sating.

As in the book, the story begins with a king, Shahryar, who murders a virgin bride each night until encountering Scheherazade, his vizier's daughter, who recounts tales, replete with cliffhangers, which help buy her 1,000 one night reprieves.

Post 5's space becomes a sort of playground of imagination for the show. The floors and walls are covered in rugs and tapestries, and the actors and actresses wear loose, revealing costumes.

As one story changes to the next, so does the tone. Cast members portray animals, choruses break into song, and a wonderful elasticity develops.

While one tale about a bag might resemble a hammy comedy sketch, another, concerning a travelling female scholar communicates a lovely earnestness and elegance.

These moods all come from the well-calibrated energy of the cast, who are aided by the most minimal props and music.

There is no set to speak of, but the audience does not feel its absence. Rather it marvels at the constant motion and invention of the actors who conjure the action of the story as quickly as Scheherazade voices it.

Many of the stories she spins involve another king, Harun al-Rashid, and those inclined to textual analysis will have fun examining the ways in which Scheherazade attempts to influence Shahryar with the tales, which often mirror their own circumstances in one way or another.

The production itself is not polemic in the least, however, and inclines rather toward celebration. Its most memorable moments are its most outrageous, such as during the story of an adulterous wife, who entertains a string of lusty callers in the space of minutes, or during a stretch which dramatizes three hundred nights simultaneously, by enacting all the stories at once.

The effect is delirious, as one's eyes and ears are overwhelmed by the various legends springing to life.

Were the show simply a pleasure-positive confection such as this, which for long stretches it becomes, one could find nothing to quibble with about it.

When the framing device rears its head, however, the play's taste turns sour.

How, I wondered over and over, did they decide to stage a play about a serial killer, who we see kill woman after woman in the opening minutes, and who keeps threatening Scheherazade with a knife onstage, and turn it into a comedy with a happy ending?

Perhaps this is an unorthodox reading of the story, but it's not an inaccurate one. Shahryar is portrayed as troubled, demanding, and above the law.

Scheherazade caters to his every whim, seemingly untroubled by his repeated threats of violence.

Likewise, in one of Sheherazade's stories, a near sexual assault is staged humorously as an introduction to an "honorable" thief, who, it happens, is the rape initiator.

Who exactly is the audience for this? Fans of violence against women?

I don't imagine anyone at Post Five advocates misogyny, but in a production that ends with a commentary about U.S. military involvement in Iraq, it seems strange that the material I've just described was presented without remark.

The sensuality that suffuses the production is somewhat tainted by this darkness, which is a shame, as it's uncommon to find sex presented as joyously as it is throughout this play.

The cast seems to take to heart the answer a scholar gives King Harun al-Rashid when asked what the purpose of life is: to cultivate enthusiasm, and their energy is contagious.

One can enjoy their mirth, even if it's for Shahryar's pleasure.

"Arabian Nights," by Post Five Theatre, through April 28.