Theatre can enthrall us in many ways: A great story. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, a couple of great stories beautifully intertwined. Gorgeous costumes. Evocative lighting and sound, and including music. A sense that we’ve gone and experienced another world without leaving our seats.
And then there’s The Arabian Nights, which runs May 16th through June 7th at Silver Spring Stage. It offers all the above—except that instead of just a couple of great stories, it gives us story upon story upon story. Directed by Jacy D’Aiutolo, the Silver Spring Stage’s production brings the tales life with 16 actors, most playing multiple roles.
The Arabian Nights is Mary Zimmerman’s adaption of the timeless The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, in which ruler Shahryar, after discovering his wife has been unfaithful, vows to kill every virgin in his kingdom. But one of his intended victims, Scheherezade, has a plan to save her own life: she will spin stories that keep Shahryar so captivated that he cannot bear to kill her.
It is, ultimately, a play about the power and importance of storytelling. “Zimmerman says that storytelling is how we develop empathy for people who are different from ourselves, which I think speaks volumes about the significance of this play,” says D’Aiutolo, a Silver Spring Stage veteran. The stories in The Arabian Nights, he goes on, are “so funny, and so moving, and so human. But, beyond that, most of the plays the Stage does come from Western cultures, and I think it’s important to tell stories from other cultures.”
In The Arabian Nights, those stories journey through what we tend to think of as “the Middle East.” (In fact, the stories in the original The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night were collected over centuries and have their roots in Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian folklore and literature.) Says Jacqueline Chenault, who plays Scheherezade, “We travel from Baghdad to Egypt, from great palaces to quiet night streets, all without leaving the stage.”
Some of Scheherezade’s stories are iconic—even Disney-fied. But those are not the ones that Zimmerman turned to for The Arabian Nights. “There is no Sinbad, Aladdin, or Ali Baba in this adaptation,” says Leigh K. Rawls, who plays Butcher and others. But, she says, “the stories that Zimmerman chose will resonate with almost everyone. They have a Russian-doll style that draws the audience into the ever-deepening world that Scheherezade creates.” Julia Morrissey, who plays Sympathy the Learned and others, says that the stories offer some qualities that Zimmerman, who won a 2002 Tony Award for Best Direction for her adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is known for:“She travels so much emotional ground, from the downright silly to the truly moving, and she reminds us of our common humanity.”
With so many tales to tell, it’s not surprising that Silver Spring Stage’s distinctive, intimate diamond-shaped stage is more highly populated than usual. But the large cast is able to move within and between stories thanks to the set design. “Most sets at the Stage work in wood and screws and paint,” says D’Aiutolo. “With this one, we’re working more in cloth and thread.” Also unusual for the Stage is the live music—played, sung, and danced to—that’s an integral part of The Arabian Nights.
“I think this is the purest form of theatre,” says James Raby, who plays Harun al-Rashid and others. “It is storytelling, and it invites the audience to use its imagination and have an active experience. There is spectacle, there is music, there are beautiful costumes. I think of it as a really big show that is also very intimate.”
The cast also includes Joel Beaven (Greengrocer and others), Karen Elle (Perfect Love and others), Mario Font (Jester and others), Karen V. Lawrence (Azizah and others), Catherine Oh (Dunyazade and others), Christa Palmer (Principal Musician), Doug Sanford (Madman and others), Lorrie Smith (Girl and others), Terry Spann (Shahryar and others), Vanessa Terzaghi (Slave Girl and others), and Samuel Dumarque Wright (Jafar and others).
D’Aiutolo and his actors agree: The Arabian Nights is not a simple show. But Rawls says that Zimmerman’s “outlandish stage directions and challenging texts,” combined with the creativity of the production team and cast at the Stage, have resulted in “a beautiful array of vivid imagery and imagination.” And, notes David Flinn, who plays Wazir and others, The Arabian Nights is most definitely “something out of the ordinary for Community Theatre.”
The Arabian Nights plays on weekends from May 16th through June 7th (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., plus Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on May 25 and June 1). The opening night performance will be followed by a reception to which all audience members are invited. Regular ticket price is $20, but $10 tickets are available for select performances on Goldstar. There is also a Pay-What-You-Can preview on Thursday, May 15, at 8 p.m. The Stage is located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, MD 20901.
This article is written Lennie Magida.