I spend the first thirty minutes of 1001 in a state of irritated disaffection. This is the world premiere of an original play, and disaffection may be a legitimate response: Playwright Jason Grote has tried to do something original, something that I can't slot tidily into any of the pre-existing niches in my brain. I just don't know how to take what I'm seeing -- which is a satiric enactment of the story of the Arabian Nights.
Infuriated by his wife's adultery, Schahriyar, the King of Persia, has her executed and proceeds to marry nearly all the virgins in the kingdom, one by one, in order to deflower them and put them to death. Scheherazade hatches a plot to stop the murderous rampage. She gets the king to marry her and, at night, tells him stories, leaving each night's installment unfinished. As long as the king's curiosity stays alive, so does Scheherazade. This plot -- along with parts of Scheherazade's tales -- is acted out in a deliberately arch and overdone way: The first doomed bride flits around like a breathless high school girl; a eunuch affects a comically high-pitched voice; we listen to a lisped tongue twister of almost unendurable dopiness.
This disjointedness is intentional. The actors switch from role to role, some of the action occurs on a television screen, the costumes and props look as if they've been filched from an itinerant theater company, and the king periodically breaks character, utters weird anachronisms or confuses the meaning of ordinary words. And all along the way, there are hints that some other reality is stuttering beneath the surface.
Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 24, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Then we're in New York, and our king, now named Alan, is standing in what seems to be a sewer, having survived some cataclysm involving towers. "Where were the rats?" he wonders. The One-Eyed Arab who led us through the earlier stories reappears, and we're back in a dreamlike world in which Alan converses with labyrinth-maker Jorge Luis Borges and Sinbad the Sailor sets out on his seven voyages.
Alan is Jewish. He meets Dahna, a Palestinian, at a speech given by Alan Dershowitz, who's fulminating against activists' attempts to get American universities to divest from companies doing business with Israel. Dahna is played by Lanna Joffrey, who also plays Scheherazade. She tries to ask Dershowitz a question, but is silenced by his bluster and heckling from the audience. After the presentation, Alan approaches and assures her that not all American Jews are like Dershowitz, and a romance begins.
In Dirty Story, which was staged by the Denver Center Theatre Company a couple of years ago, John Patrick Stanley envisioned the conflict between Israel and Palestine as an endless, sadomasochistic embrace. Grote embeds his contemporary Jewish-Palestinian love affair in a web of allusions, metaphors, stories and references, from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to Edward Said's Orientalism (Dershowitz, incidentally, is one of Said's bitterest critics). But he focuses less on political and historical realities than on the swirl of myth and fairytale that characterizes the West's conception of the East.
Said argued that the West created its own vision of the Orient, a vision that sexualized and romanticized the East and helped justify colonialism. The Thousand and One Nights -- which began with Persian, Indian and Arabic folktales before it was written down and has since been translated and retranslated back and forth between the two cultures -- exemplifies this complex relationship. It also stands here as a metaphor for history.
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Nineteenth-century French novelist Gustav Flaubert, who visited Egypt when he was 27, makes an appearance in 1001 with a prostitute, to whom he gives a blue veil (swaths of blue fabric play a significant role in the play). She uses it in a parodied belly dance before contemptuously sating his lust, and I begin to better understand the mocking, ramshackle style of the early scenes: They're a satiric commentary on the West's view of the Orient.
Meanwhile, in their parallel reality, Dahna and Alan visit Gaza, where Alan is almost killed by an Israeli soldier. Later, against her will, Dahna is drawn to a handsome young Arab businessman, with whom -- in a charming scene -- she communicates by instant message. He represents the reality of the modern Middle East, but he also calls to a deep, atavistic sense of national identity within Dahna.
Under the direction of Ethan McSweeny, all of the actors are vital and convincing. Josh Philip Weinstein's often befuddled Alan is appealing, and Lanna Joffrey brings strength and intelligence to the role of Scheherazade/Dahna. The terrific sound is provided by a live DJ, Sara Thurston, and the tech is impressive. We've all seen blue cloth used as rivers or sky on stage, but when Alan and Dahna dance under a parachute-like billow that then becomes the cover of their bed, it's magical.
Having set in motion a multitude of questions, 1001 ends as it began, with a man lying on a hospital gurney. The cast members take their bows, and I'm relieved to see that one of the actors, John Livingstone Rolle, is wearing a T-shirt that says "Stand up for your rights." Finally, I think, an unequivocal statement. Or is it?