In 2007, Jason Grote deconstructed the tales of the Arabian Nights in his modern-meets-ancient mashup of a play, 1001. A decade later, he's taken this reinterpretation a step further, musicalizing the collage of stories with the help of an emotive, though mostly unmelodic, score by Marisa Michelson (Grote pens the lyrics). One Thousand Nights and One Day, a Prospect Theater Company production now running at A.R.T./New York Theatres, is an ambitious project that impressively tames several narrative threads to ask Broadway's new favorite question: "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"
The storyline that contains all the rest is the tale of Scheherazade, the character who famously narrates all of the tales in One Thousand and One Nights. As the story goes, the Persian king Shahryar (Ben Steinfeld delivering his lines and music with a wonderfully resonant baritone) was betrayed by his first wife and, in an ultimate display of patriarchy, subsequently decided to marry a new virgin each day only to behead her the following morning. Scheherazade (Sepideh Moafi, blending softness with grounded strength) bravely volunteers to be wife number 1001, and for the next 1001 nights, tells Shahryar a never-ending story that she promises to finish the following night. The plot not only delays her murder but leads the king to fall in love and make her his permanent queen.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the story of Shahryar and Scheherazade becomes the story of Alan (Steinfeld) and Dahna (Moafi) — a Jewish man and Palestinian woman — who meet and fall in love just before racism became patriotic in a post-9/11 world (author Jorge Luis Borges, played by Ashkon Davaran, also makes an unexpected cameo). Director Erin Ortman does an efficient job of transitioning between these two primary narratives, aided by Carolyn Wong's mood-changing lighting cues and scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West's maze of curtains that open and close to designate areas of time and space. It's the connections between these two love stories that could use some honing directorially and narratively. The production broaches several interesting topics worthy of exploration: tropes born from Arab fairytales that are shallow at best and racist at worst (Graham Stevens does an irreverent job of playing the "One-Eyed Arab" while donning one of designer Becky Bodurtha's clichéd Arabian ensembles); the ways stories shape our reality just as much as reality shapes our stories; and how we, perhaps, are reliving the cruelty of our ancient lore in new and creative ways.
Each of these topics could lead down an endless rabbit hole of its own, and the production does a fine job of maintaining its balance in spite of these many alluring paths that could narrow its scope. But as it stands, the separate threads of One Thousand Nights and One Day — ancient and modern — leave us to make the analytical jumps between the two ourselves. There's a wealth of comparisons to draw and insights to discuss, but the power of seeing more of them played out onstage could be extraordinary.
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