Sunday, April 15, 2018

204 (2017-2018): Review: ONE THOUSAND NIGHTS AND ONE DAY (seen April 13, 2018)

"Baubles, Bangles, and Bombs"

The Prospect Theater Company, whose annual productions of new musicals often push the envelope, has done so again with One Thousand Nights and One, a hour and a half adaptation by Jason Grote of his 2011 play 1001, with music by Marisa Michelson.

Sepideh Moafi, Ben Steinfeld. Photo: Richard Termine.
As the title reveals, the material is based on the Middle East folk stories gathered in one of the various compilations often called The Arabian Nights. Reader: Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet, “Scheherazade” or such recent shows as Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights have little to fear.
Sepideh Moafi, Ben Steinfeld. Photo: Richard Termine.
To be fair, Grote’s “postmodern musical fantasia” is not intended as a traditional dramatization of the original, which first appeared in English in 1708; the program notes declare, it’s “a deconstruction of the Arabian Nights through the lens of scholar Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism.” In other words, it intends to convey a subtextual message about “the long traditions of false cultural representations and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East.” Assuming that’s the case, I’m not convinced it actually achieves that goal, nor that the result somehow makes better theatre.
Ben Steinfeld, Ashkon Davaran.
Staged by Erin Ortman in minimalist fashion, the scenery is confined mainly to Jason Ardizzone-West’s rather funereal arrangement of dark, lace-like curtains, hung like those in hospitals and moved around by the actors to change locations. Carolyn Wong’s expert lighting goes a long way to enliven this dull environment. A “One-Eyed Arab” (Graham Stevens), whose two eyes are perfectly visible, serves as a comical emcee-narrator, dressed in an Arab robe and poking fun at his own stereotypical character, making what are perhaps the show's most salient cultural points.
Ben Steinfeld, Sepideh Moafi. Photo: Richard Termine.
He proceeds to narrate the story of Persian King Shahriyer (Ben Steinfeld), who, having discovered his wife in flagrante delicto, seeks to end adultery by marrying a virgin a day, having sex with them, and then beheading them with his scimitar. Only his Wazir’s (Ashkon Davaron) beautiful daughter, Scheherazade (Sepideh Moafi), is able to stop him by getting him so interested in a story she tells that she’s able prevent her own demise by stringing it out over 1,001 nights.
Sepideh Moafi. Photo: Richard Termine. 
Shahriyar, something of a confused schlemiel, struggles to find the right words and uses contemporary colloquialisms and profanity. That’s because (SPOILER) he’s actually a 21st century Jew named Alan, in a coma after a massive bombing (or so it seems) of Man Hat, as it’s called in Scheherazade’s story. His trauma, you see, is causing him to imagine himself the king in the story being read at his hospital bedside by his Palestinian girlfriend, Dhana, played by the same actress who portrays Scheherazade. It takes a long time for the connection between the parallel situations to come into focus and it’s easy to get lost and lose interest along the way.
Ben Steinfeld, Graham Stevens. Photo: Richard Termine.
Much of the first half is a series of comic scenes about the king’s dilemma. A great deal of the second shifts to present times to show how Alan met Dhana at Columbia University when she tried to pose a pro-Palestinian question to Alan Dershowitz (yes, that one, voiced by Ashkon Davaran) about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was rudely rebuffed.

Our Alan, a Palestinian sympathizer, becomes Dhana’s lover, visits Gaza with her, is responsible—he thinks he’s acting like a heroic martyr—for their guide being shot in the eye (guess who plays the guide), and plays second fiddle when Dhana becomes attracted to a handsome, wealthy Arab guy (Chad Goodridge) on social media. It’s nice to see Alan and Dhana’s Jew-Arab cross-cultural affair blossom but the socio-political vibes it seeks to produce are little more than clich├ęd window dressing on a universal romantic situation.
Ashkon Davaran, Ben Steinfeld, Sepideh Moafi, Yassi Noubahar. Photo: Richard Termine.
Much as Michelson’s music—which often sounds like bland dialogue sung in operatic tones when it’s not displaying melismatic overkill to suggest Arabic melodies—comes in the Arabian nights material that begins the show. When the Dhana-Alan situations arrive, singing becomes minimal and dialogue dominates; given the songs’ bland similarities this isn’t such a bad thing. None of this is the fault of the fine five-piece band in an upstage nook,
Ben Steinfeld, Chad Goodridge, Gabriella Perez. Photo: Richard Termine.
Karla Puno Garcia has provided a lot of choreographic movement to accompany the Middle Eastern-inflected music; arms wave sinuously, bodies twist and turn, and robotic gestures abound. Much of this resembles an elaborate martial arts routine. The players wear designer Becky Bodurtha’s eclectic blend of simplified Arabian nights’ costumes, modern dress (hajibs included), and neutral black for when they serve as a chorus.

Moafi, a dark-haired beauty, sings with a lovely soprano and acts with simple honesty and a wry sense of humor, Steinfeld has a firm baritone and moves well enough, and Stevens brings enthusiastic energy to his Arab caricature. Everyone else is generally sincere and focused.
Ben Steinfeld, Ashkon Davaran. Photo: Richard Termine.
This is the kind of show in which anything can happen, even an appearance by Jorge Luis Borges (Davaran) to talk about storytelling, or a djinn (also Davaran) who materializes when Alan rubs a magic lamp. Alan asks the djinn to get his lover back. I suggest he ask for a better show.


A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through April 29