One Thousand and One Nights, the collection of classic Islamic tales upon which Mary Zimmerman built The Arabian Nights, now playing at Constellation Theatre Company, could not have a more violent premise.
King Shahryar finds his wife having sex with a slave and executes both. He then begins a campaign: he marries a virgin every night, rapes her, and then executes her in the morning.
After all the families with young daughters have fled his kingdom, Shahryar turns to his loyal Wazir and demands that he bring his daughter, Scheherezade, to his bed.
The Wazir wants to flee with his family as well when Scheherezade convinces her father that she and her sister Dunyazade have a plan, a plan to save the kingdom, and the King, from ruin.
And the power of the story to transform lives will soon be on full display.
Constellation Theatre’s production of Zimmerman’s adaptation is dynamic and energetic, its characters distinct and engaging, and its music, performed by the ever-animated Tom Teasley, pulses like a live-wire from start to finish.
Director Allison Arkell Stockman demonstrates firm control over the pacing of the show as well as its flow of transitions between present action, Scheherezade’s narrative seduction of the king, and the fictional world of the tales themselves.
Veronica del Cerro portrays Scheherezade, giving her an intelligent coyness as she coaxes Shahryar’s curiosity even as she suffers his intimidating savagery.
Ryan Sellers’ Shahryar shifts from serial killer to lover as the wisdom of the tales perform their literary magic.
As Scheherezade’s father looks on with shroud in-hand (portrayed wistfully by Tom Howley), we, like Shahryar, wonder what tale will save her next.
The entire ensemble does a fabulous job as the actors take on multiple characters in storybook style.
In the first tale, the character of Perfect Love (performed hauntingly by Yesenia Iglesias) sends a love-note to a young, “holy” shopkeeper (performed engagingly by Shravan Amin). The shopkeeper rebukes her sincere declaration, calling her a vile harlot, and worse.
Even though this The Arabian Nights is purely masculine in its orientation, it is not, however, without its powerful, independent female characters.
The most powerful of female characters is the incredible Sympathy who comes to dethrone the wisest of men. As played by Lilian Oben, each of her answers, be they ripped from the Quran or from the sciences, zips into the ego of her masculine questioners while her all-knowing eyes flash an “I told you so.” Yet it’s clear, she has no earthly ambitions and will seek no reward in return.
Many of the stories of the One Thousand and One Nights are told to Harun Al-Rashid, a fictional king who begins the night in the depths of despair. Kevin Sockwell’s portrayal is a wonderful combination of regal and soulful.
The other ensemble members include Surasree Das as a playfully deceptive Dunyazade, Jeremy Keith Hunter as an eager to rise Pastrycook, Matthew Aldwin McGee as a delightful “I don’t want a wife” Jester, and Dallas Milholland as an incredibly horny Jester’s Wife.
And through it all, Tom Teasley’s one-man band drives the action forward, and the songs which, though classic in their construction, are ever meaningful to their design.
Ms. Stockman’s design team does a great job transforming the Source into an Arabian story world. Scenic Designer A.J. Guban, with lights by Jason Arnold, keep it simple and flexible.
Designer Erik Teague has done a masterful job with the costumes: vivid and colorful, the clothing flows with the actors, allowing pictures of grace and symmetry.
A special nod should be given to the choreography by Veronique Kim Tran. From the belly dancing of Perfect Love’s entourage to the dance of the mad, each number had its own signature and style.
So if you are in the mood for a visually splendid evening of theatre, with plenty of old world spiritual wisdom thrown into the mix, with fine acting and superb music, make your way to 14th Street and the Source.
The Arabian Nights await.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, with an intermission.
The Arabian Nights plays through June 4, 2017, at Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.