PROVO — “We want to tell you these stories, and now come with us to this magical place,” exclaimed the performers at the beginning of BYU’s production of selections from Arabian Nights written by Mary Zimmerman. Stories they did share and magical it was. Sixteen actors and six musicians made up the ensemble that filled our night with wonderous tales. As the performance began the ensemble came out speaking in unison on a set consisting of a large elevated platform with three doorways and a starry sky backdrop. Through this effective opening scene, director Megan Sanborn Jones transported me and the young audience to another time and prepared us for the many timeless stories that we would experience throughout the evening.
The familiar story of the Arabian Nights tells of a king who catches his wife with a lover and kills her, then marries a new wife every night only to behead her at dawn to avoid being betrayed again. The clever young Shcheherezade (Karli Hall), has devised a plan to save her life and make her king happy. When it comes time for her to marry King Shahryar (Daniel Sappenfield), she tells him stories all night long, leaving enticing elements untold so he must spare her life another day to be able to hear the end of the tale. She often does this by telling a story within a story within a story. One example of this is the story of “The Madman,” in which the title character (Beau Brewster) tells how he ends up in the madhouse. The Madman is met by a fool who passes a note to him with an ode of love from a beautiful woman. He tears it up and because of his choice a downward spiral of deception and mistaken identity lead him to marry a hag. Brewster’s portrayal of the Madman was my favorite performance of the night with his wit and frustration being prominent. Noelle Houston’s song in “The Madman” was most beautiful and my favorite musical performance of the night. Another delightful example of stories within stories is in the “Perfidy of Wives” when the audience hears the Pastry Cook (Krystle Perkins) tell “The Dream,” the Butcher (Katie Jarvis) tell “The Contest of Generosity,” the Greengrocer (Joshua Puim) and the Clarinetest (Adam White) tell stories within the larger frame of “Perfidy of Wives.”
Appropriately for a show designed for young audiences, there were many funny parts to the play. Some of the funniest obviously coming from elements of improvisation that occurred during the formation of the piece. In the story “The Wonderful Bag,” a bag is found on the street. Two men are trying to convince another that the bag is theirs by telling what is inside. Such things as a fluffy cloud, a long hair from his big toe, and a rodent who runs a leisure park and wears red shorts and white gloves are said to be inside. The best comedic timing and physical comedy was portrayed in “Abu al-Hasan’s Historic Indiscretion.” The audience had the biggest laugh of the night when Abu al-Husan (Joseph Skousen) exclaimed, “ My fart has become a date on the calendar!”
The writing of “Sympathy the Learned” was very cleaver and the story was my 10-year-old companion’s favorite of the night. Further improvisational elements played a part in the production as the students at BYU created three stories used in the performance. The Theatre and Media Arts Department’s seniors in contemporary performance practices class created “The Genie and the Fisherman,” “The Two Wazirs,” and “The Tale of Pearl Harvest.” The first two were part of a show entitled “The Confusion of Stories,” in which Shcheherezade tells six stories at once leading up to her thousandth story.
I enjoyed the use of dance, music, and lighting to help enhance the storytelling. The dancing at the wedding was a whirling delight as the lights played off of the beautiful costumes (designed by Mary Farahnakian). The use of music, especially percussion instruments, was brilliant. Music was used as scenes transitioned and as accompaniment. Finger cymbals indicated a story was about to begin. The lighting (designed by Erin Bjorn) set different areas of focus by transitioning the lights from one acting area to another. All “scene changes” were merely lighting changes, movements of props, and costume changes. I especially appreciated that the musical instruments were authentic to the Middle East. Moreover, the Sufi ritual of whirling, an Arabic dance, was learned from award-winning choreographer Banafsheh Sayyad when she visited campus earlier this year.
The play is part of a theme on campus this year, as BYU Theatre continues its participation in the national conversation about Islamic and Arabic culture. There have been guest artists and lectures this year to explore the heritage of the Middle East. What a wonderful culmination of the dialogue this production is. And what a great message,” Telling a good story can save your life!”