Sunday, December 18, 2011

A magic carpet ride in Central Square

The giant rukh takes flight in Arabian Nights.

Arabian Nights, at the Central Square Theatre through December 31, isn't technically a Christmas show, I suppose (can you have a Muslim Christmas show?) - but it feels like a big fat Christmas present just the same.  No, it's not flawless, but Nights is nevertheless just about the best show in town - big and bursting with color and wonder, thanks to brilliant design, evocative puppets, and a tireless troupe of talented actors who once more breathe life into a 1,001 tales that are themselves more than a millennium old.

You probably know the most famous of these, but hardly all 1,001 - and there really are that many (in fact there are actually more), collected over hundreds of years by nameless scribes from lands stretching, it is believed, from Madagascar to India.  The record of these tales, and their framing in the haunting story of Sheherazade (or, as here, Shahrz─üd), counts as one of the great artistic achievements of mankind.

And I mean "great" as in both deep and enormous - we only get a taste of that sprawl here, however, in Dominic Cooke's smart, savvy adaptation of maybe a half-dozen tales, which range from the familiar ("Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves") to the kid-friendly ("How Abu Hassan Broke Wind").  Parents should note, however, that even in this abbreviated form, Arabian Nights runs a little long for the kindergarten set - and there are a few moments of cruelty and/or sexuality that might lead to awkward questions (these are folk tales, after all, from folk who were always honest about the human body).

As an introduction to the sheer pleasure of story-telling, however - a pleasure in short supply for kids these days, I think - the Arabian Nights simply cannot be beat, and adaptor Cooke has done a fine job of distilling the fascinating logic of their unfolding structures into dramatic form.  He has also nimbly tied one of the more obscure of them ("The Envious Sisters") to the frame-story of Scheherazade, which is here gently tweaked into an explicit feminist fable. (It's only a slight tweak, though - the tale of Scheherazade is a feminist fable, and again one of the great ones.)

Director Daniel Gidron always has a flair with tight, logical structures (he's a terrific farceur), but this time he has also conjured a steady flow of striking imagery to produce an often-mesmerizing production.  Gidron has been aided immensely, though, by designer David Fichter's iridescently-painted "magic carpet" on the stage floor (Fichter is one of the Central Square's secret weapons), and the many delightful puppets designed by Fichter with Will Cabell (including a full-scale rukh, at top), as well as sensuous costume designs by Leslie Held, evocative props by Talia Lefton, and imaginative lighting from Karen Perlow.  In short, the design is pretty much a dream, and the acting is generally just as good.  The entire ensemble is strong, and each gets his or her chance to shine, so I'll just name them all, in alphabetical order: Ramona Lisa Alexander, Paige Clark, Alexander Cook, Evelyn Howe, Elbert Joseph, Ahmad Maksoud, Ibrahim Miari, Vincent E. Siders, and Debra Wise.  It's also worth noting that there is a hearing-impaired actor in this company, who does just fine, thank you very much; and in a very nice and inclusive touch, near the close of this production it begins to shift into simultaneous sign as well as spoken language (after all, what is sign language but full-body story-telling?), which opens up a whole new topic for discussion with the kids.  This version (a co-production of the Nora Theatre and Underground Railway) only plays through New Year's, although if there's any artistic justice, it will be back for future runs; something tells me that Central Square has a classic on its hands.

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