The Gotham premiere of Jason Grote’s “1001” has the perfect website: A section called “Enter the Story” contains a fake newspaper filled with headlines about the near future, but links for individual articles lead to everything from Grote’s MySpace page to an email inbox for a fictional character. You think you’re getting one story, and then another one appears, but the fractured pieces create a single, massive tale. That’s exactly what happens in the production, which offers a wild and beautiful glimpse at the yarns that shape our lives.
On the simplest level, Grote is adapting “1001 Arabian Nights,” in which Scheherazade (Roxanna Hope) keeps her bloodthirsty husband, King Shahriyar (Matthew Rauch), from killing her by telling him a different story every evening. She invokes classic figures — including Sinbad of the Seven Seas (Jonathan Hova) — but she also tells of Alan and Dahna, a modern-day Jewish man and Arab woman, also played by Rauch and Hope, who have a troubled love affair in New York.
The Scheherazade/Shahriyar and Dahna/Alan plots have plenty of parallels, but they are only part of the point. The bigger theme is storytelling itself, and how humans understand history by forcing everything into a tidy narrative structure. Even if it isn’t always true, the story we keep telling — about the power of love, violence, and death — is a comfort.
Grote tackles that concept with gripping imagination, achieving a cosmic scope by eliminating the barriers between worlds. King Shahriyar can use modern slang, and while she’s standing in her apartment, Dahna can reach through time and pick up an ancient sword.
Director Ethan McSweeny, who helmed the play’s world premiere in February for Denver Center Theater Company, keeps tight control over the narrative. Time and space shift in a moment, but it’s always clear where we are.
With his design team, McSweeny also translates ambitious stage directions into dynamic visuals.
As Alan and Dahna dance at a club, for instance, the other cast members carry on an enormous blue cloth, which they hurl upwards like a parachute. As the cloth falls, we expect it to drape around bodies, but it settles to the floor as though nothing were beneath it. Then, in a far corner, we see Alan using the fabric as a blanket. Only now he’s Shahriyar, and we’ve gone back in time. That image not only surprises, but also enhances the theme of fluidity.
Elsewhere, McSweeny smooths the script’s roughest edges. Grote often gives characters transitional monologues about the stories we’ll be hearing, and their purple descriptions get ridiculously overwrought. However, as the narrator stands in place, the other actors scurry like mad, changing costumes or hurling sets into place. The monologues feel vital because we watch how they summon a world into being.
And every realm gets its own acting style. The supporting cast nimbly plays everything from melodrama to farce, creating detailed personas at every turn.
Meanwhile, Hope and Rauch ground the troupe. Scheherazade’s grandeur and Alan’s gentle kindness run through the production like a spine. Anchors like those make it easy to travel through this constantly shifting play.