Review: The Arabian Nights at Silver Spring Stage

TheatreBloom rating:

If the wind’s from the east, and the sun’s from the west, and the sand in the glass is right, then come on down, stop on by, hop a carpet and fly to Silver Spring Stage to see their sensational production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights. Directed by Jacy D’Aiutolo, this production lives up to the mission statement of The Stage— “Little Theater. Big Ideas.” With a cast of over a dozen on the intimate stage, D’Aiutolo takes the tales of 1,001 nights as adapted by Zimmerman and brings them to mesmerizing life right before your very eyes. From the vibrant atmosphere that wafts in like the sands blown across the dunes in a desert breeze, to the incredibly captivating voices of the story tellers; the production is practically perfect in every way; a vision of excellence in one of the oldest retellings of folklore from the Middle East. A perfect evening spent at the theatre; engaging, captivating, enchanting, and all around phenomenal to experience.

Silver Spring Stage's The Cast of Arabian Nights
Silver Spring Stage’s The Cast of Arabian Nights Harvey Levine

The Arabian Nights can be a marvel is executed correctly. Director Jacy D’Aiutolo has a magnificent design team working under him. Scenic Designer Andrew Greenleaf lets the atmosphere of a street bazaar unfurl right before the audiences’ eyes on an otherwise desolate canvas of a blank stage. The entire opening sequence is a spectacular culmination of D’Aiutolo’s vision with Choreographer Allison Otto working the construction of this wondrous world to life. The entire company parades in with carpets a plenty upon their shoulders and to the rhythm of a beating drum (played by the show’s primary musician Christa Palmer) they construct a surreal but enchanting atmosphere upon which the show will take place.

Having original music composed by Daniel McLaughlin to underscore and highlight the production in key places is essential to blending aural perfection with the vibrantly appeasing aesthetic of the stage. With the assistance of Musical Director Katherine Offutt, various members of the ensemble find entrancing melodies to present to the audience. The musical moments of the show become magical, Offutt’s work with McLaughlin’s original compositions making for charming enhancements to the production.

Allison Otto’s choreography is fluid and hypnotic, particularly when Otto sets groups of the female ensemble to dancing across the stage. It’s not just her use of sultry and sensual dance moves that make her a skilled choreographer, but the show’s overall segments of movement, like the incredible series of articulated movements during the mini tale of “Abu al-Hassan’s Historic Indiscretion (The Clarinetist’s Tale.)” Otto’s work in that segment alone where Abu al-Hassan (played by Doug Sanford) escapes over mountains, rivers, camels, and camels is a series of movements executed with the help of the male ensemble; brilliance in motion.

1,001 pages could easily be spent laboring on about the wonders constructed by the design team— including the stunning costumes designed by Laurel Victoria Gray. Choosing to keep to earthen tones with jeweled accents, Gray accentuates the miraculous style of the Middle East from a time long forgotten in her resplendent designs. Even Lighting Designer Peter Caress deserves a nod for illuminating the skies of Baghdad and every other location mentioned when night falls into the tales being told. Truly stupendous things wait to be seen, heard, and experienced in this production, a must-see of the season.

As an ensemble piece, the performers take turns telling the stories; each character thoroughly developed and distinct from the others. Many of the actors play multiple characters and Director Jacy D’Aiutolo does an exceptional job of keeping these dually casted roles from being confusing. Whenever a character enters a story as someone other than they were a moment go it becomes very clear that they are a new character. D’Aiutolo creates astonishing stories from Zimmerman’s adaptation; thoroughly well acted and performed near perfection.

An impossibility as difficult as keeping one’s head in the palace of Shahryar Prince of Time would be mentioning every individual in each of their incredible roles in this production. There is humor, there is sorrow; emotions of all shapes and sizes and lessons to be learned entwined with morals and all sorts of fantastical storytelling elements. Each member of the ensemble contributes to the overall phenomenal performance that is this production each in their own way. Christa Palmer, as the show’s primary musician, sits on stage among the players and adds the sounds of her drum, flute, clarinet, and other instruments to the performance as it flows along the like the tranquil water of the Ganges.

Dunyazade (L- Catherine Oh) and The Jester (Mario Font) in the tale "The Perfidy of Wives"
Dunyazade (L- Catherine Oh) and The Jester (Mario Font) in the tale “The Perfidy of Wives” Harvey Levine

During the tale “The Perfidy of Wives” Dunyazade (Catherine Oh) who has previously only been seen as the simpering younger sister of the primary storyteller, steps into the tale as the libidinous wife of a Jester(Mario Font.) Oh’s comic timing and exasperation in this tale is executed impeccably, adding hilarity to the scenario as she piles her four lovers into the privy. This tale is one of the longer in the production as it features four mini-tales, each appeasing in their own right. Of the four mini tales it is “Improvisation on The Wonderful Bag (The Greengrocer’s Tale)” that stands out as the best. Featuring Julia Morrissey and Leigh K. Rawls, these two ladies duke it out in a “Housewives of Silver Spring” style throw down over what’s in the bag. “Improvising” their way through the contents of the bag, Rawls and Morrissey include pop-modern references as well as sprinklings of local color to keep the audience laughing through this segment.

Morrissey takes on the role of Sympathy in the second act as well, a polar opposite performance to her show-down in The Greengrocer’s tale. Speaking as a sagely calmed spirit, her character challenges the learned elders of the land, delivering wisdom and sharp truths that are striking to hear. Another forceful female talent of note is Karen Elle, featured as ‘Perfect Love’ in “The Madman’s Tale.” With a sultry and sassy disposition, her delivery up against the Madman (Doug Sanford) is truly delectable and rather enticing.

Sanford, as every merchant in any tale where a merchant is needed, has an equally strong presence about him regardless of what character he is playing. His most notable character exaggerations occur during “Sympathy the Learned” and “The Clarinetist’s Tale.” Both are completely distinctive characters, again completely opposite from one another, showcasing Sanford’s dynamic range and ability as an actor.

Playing the king Harun al-Rashid (James Raby) is a mighty task. Raby embodies this noble character with a regal radiance that speaks volumes of his knowledge of his title. His best work as the king character comes during “The Mock Kalifah” a tale played opposite of the Prince Shahryar (Terry Spann) as Aziz. Spann, who is only ever the cruel and tyrannical Shahryar, except for slipping into this one story, is a force to be reckoned with upon the stage. Ever present, always watching the stories as they unfold, without blinking or waning attention, Spann’s severity that he brings to the character makes him well worth noting. There is a shocking side to his performance as well once he steps into the story “The Mock Kalifah” the only time that the prince becomes a part of the ‘meta-story’ element of the production.

Dunyazade (Far Left, Catherine Oh) with Prince Shahryar (L- Terry Spann) and Scheherezade (R- Jacqueline Chenault)
Dunyazade (Far Left, Catherine Oh) with Prince Shahryar (L- Terry Spann) and Scheherezade (R- Jacqueline Chenault) Harvey Levine

It would be a great shame to not mention the primary narrator of the performance, Scheherezade (Jacqueline Chenault.) Living the tale of the bride who tricked the prince into keeping her alive for just “one more night” so she could finish her tales, Chenault gives a stellar performance in this role. Collected and focused, her inner tranquility radiates into each tale that she tells, while still finding a way to make these stories vibrant and lively. When she speaks the lines of the stories’ characters, often done in tandem with the other actors playing these characters, she embodies the spirit of their voices, sounding as if they were her own to tell. A truly remarkable performance in such an important role, Chenault is well worth of 1,001 praises.

The stories may have lasted for 1,001 nights but this production will not. Do not let the grains of sand slip completely through the hourglass before you go to see this epic performance at Silver Spring Stage this season.

Running Time:  2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

The Arabian Nights plays through June 7, 2014 at Silver Spring Stage— 10145 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets please call the box office at (301) 593- 6036 or purchased them online.

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