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Theater review: Tapestry of stories displayed in BYU's 'Arabian Nights'

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, May 28 2012 3:47 p.m. MDT

As Scheherazade, Karli Hall leads the cast of BYU's production of "Arabian Nights."

© BYU PHOTO 2012 / Jaren Wilkey

"ARABIAN NIGHTS,” Brigham Young University Theatre Department, Pardoe Theatre, through June 9, $12-$6, (801) 422-4322 or byuarts.com/tickets

PROVO — Tell a good story or you die.

In “Arabian Nights,” staged by the BYU Theatre Department, the maiden Scheherazade will be murdered if she doesn’t continue to captivate the wicked King Shahryar with her riveting, to-be-continued tales. One wonders how long Scheherazade would last if audience members were in Shahryar’s pointed-toe shoes.

Tony-winning director-playwright Mary Zimmerman designed her 1994 play to be a woven tapestry of inventive stories. For its interlooping framework, the play structures the wise new bride Scheherazade relating stories to delay her execution over the course of 1,001 nights after the sultan’s decision to take on a succession of new brides when he is betrayed by an unfaithful wife.

Conveying empathy through storytelling, “Arabian Nights” is an adaptation of “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,” a collection of folk tales told and retold across generations from ancient times in Persia, Arabia, India and Asia. With her plays “Metamorphoses” and “Pericles,” along with her 2010 revision of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Zimmerman is renowned for her great invention in smoothing over plot threads into one unifying and thrilling theater experience.

Director Megan Sanborn Jones uses selections of the original play in this Utah premiere. Two of the stories were developed by students for this production, and one segment, “The Tale of the Pearl Harvest,” was written by BYU faculty member Melissa Leilani Larsen, who successfully adapted Jane Austen’s novel “Persuasion” to the BYU stage last season. Other stories have the titles “Abu al-Hasan’s Historic Indiscretion,” “The Wonderful Bag” and the aptly named “Confusion of Stories.” It helps to have these topic areas in mind as the stories are presented.

It’s a sumptuous-looking show, and the play is an excellent choice to allow performers to stretch their acting abilities as they take on nearly 1,001 onstage characters — from characters named Abu and Ali (but not the Abu and Prince Ali from Disney’s 1992 “Aladdin”) to wazirs (government officials).

The 16 cast members are exotically costumed for their various roles from the dowry chests at the sides of the eight-sided, raised-platform stage, and the stories are heightened by live performances on the 15 authentic Middle Eastern musical instruments. Student-composed pieces are played on an oud, santur, mijwiz, riq, tonbak and daduk (each explained in the study guide by dramaturges Rocky Chang and Jenny Huffman) — along with the more familiar triangle and finger cymbals that begin each new story.

Karli Hall is the skillful storyteller Scheherazade and Daniel Sappenfield is the murderous sultan who lead the enthusiastic cast. To emphasize their participation in the stories, Hall and Sappenfield take on roles alongside the other actors, speaking in occasionally confusing nonunison style.

Most impressive are the performances of Beau Brewster, Jacob Shamy and Miki Brewster. The trio shows wonderful abilities to connect with audience members.

Beau Brewster is the Madman who must learn kindness before he can possess Perfect Love (Elise Osorio). Shamy excels as Silent Sage, Ishak of Mosul and Jafar.

In the best-related of the stories, “Sympathy the Learned,” a charming Miki Brewster is the wisest of women who amazes her elders with her Socratic exchanges. “What is sweeter than honey?” she is asked. “The love of a child,” we learn.

The ensemble works well together, but only brief segments of the stories truly transport theatergoers on a magic-carpet-ride adventure. Though designed as family theater, it is advised that the university’s policy of not allowing children under age 6 be followed. There are difficult-to-understand passages, and some of the light comedy is derived from schoolyard humor of loud and sustained flatulence.

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