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In BYU's 'Arabian Nights,' the power of stories to change lives is revealed

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, May 19 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

PROVO — Storytelling took on a new meaning for the clever maiden named Scheherazade. In “The Book of 1,001 Nights,” the cliff-hanging stories she would weave for her cruel sultan husband each night were quite literally life-saving.

The Brigham Young University Theatre Department will stage the Utah premiere of a boldly reimagined adaptation of one of the world’s most enduring works of literature. To make the show wholly unique, selections from award-winning author Mary Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights” are combined with stories crafted by students.

Zimmerman, a 2002 Tony winner for “Metamorphoses,” has an improvisational writing process like few other playwrights. She does not write her scripts until during the rehearsal process and actors influence what stories she tells and how she tells them.

“The major impetus for adjusting and changing the script was to allow students the opportunity to read a story and make a play trying to model the work that Zimmerman does,” says director Megan Sanborn Jones.

“It’s been a wonderful collaborative process, and I’m grateful to Zimmerman for allowing us to do this. Instead of being a playwright who says, ‘You have to perform my work as I’ve written it,’ she said, ‘No, do it the way you want to do it.’ ”

In "Arabian Nights," after his wife cheats on him, King Shahryar decides to take a new wife every day and have her ruthlessly executed the next morning. But the murderous cycle ends with Scheherazade. For 1,001 nights, she tells her husband fascinating stories, leaving him in such suspense that he can't execute her for fear of not hearing the end of the story.

By relating the story of one of history’s greatest storytellers and her captivating tales, the magic of stories and their unique transformative ability are revealed.

“The theme that we are focusing on in ‘Arabian Nights’ is that through these stories and their telling and sharing and the envisioning of oneself in these stories, we see the power of storytelling to change and improve people’s lives,” she said.

“A very wicked king who has made some bad decisions is able to come to a place where he understands better who he is and how to behave correctly in a family and in society. The stories themselves bring this awareness.”

The Middle Eastern “1,001 Nights” has been largely “Disneyfied” in Western culture by adapting the treasure trove into children’s books, and adults don’t pay much attention to it. In some of the countries of its origin, the work has been banned for being too adult. Scheherazade tells spectacular tales of greed, revenge and amorous affairs to prevent her execution.

“We are targeting this to families; it’s not just children’s theater,” Jones explains. “And I really like the idea of family theater, rather than children’s theater. I believe that the stories can be read on a number of levels.”

The director and her students spent a year developing the production. The process included instruction from a choreographer on the Sufi ritual of whirling and viewing a one-woman show by a performance artist-playwright on women wearing the Islamic veil and other traditional head-coverings.

To help them write original music for “Arabian Nights,” students had the opportunity to study with Simon Shaheen while he was in Provo for BYU's Performing Arts Series concert. Shaheen is a virtuoso on the oud, a Middle Eastern precursor of the lute.

The show’s score, patterned after the style of Arabic music, will be performed on 15 Middle Eastern musical instruments.

“The show is set in medieval Arabia at the height of the Islamic Golden Age,” Jones says. “And yet, because Mary Zimmerman is fully aware that the play is about people telling stories, we don’t attempt to mask the fact that we are mostly Caucasian college students playing these different parts and telling these different stories. It is ‘Arabian Nights’ through a Western lens.”

Jones adds that the onstage performers invite audiences by telling them, “We want to tell you these stories, and now come with us to this magical place.

“It’s a delightful show, and members of families of all different ages will love it,” she says. “I love it, so I hope that others do too.”

If you go

What: Selections from Mary Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights”

Where: Pardoe Theatre, BYU campus

When: May 24 through Saturday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m. excluding Sundays and Mondays, with Saturday matinees on May 26 and 31 and June 2, 8 and 9 at 2 p.m.

How much? $12, with discounts for senior citizens, students and BYU alumni, and at dress rehearsals and matinee performances.

Tickets: (801) 422-4322 or byuarts.com/tickets

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