Building on the extravagant embellishments gathered under the collective literary umbrella known as “The Arabian Nights,” playwright Jason Grote delivers a phantasmagoric take on the timeless tales in “1001,” explored to visual and emotional perfection by director Ethan McSweeny and the cast and crew of Denver Center Theater Company.
The world premiere of Grote’s work serves as the showcase event of DCTC’s second annual Colorado New Play Summit (Feb. 9-10). The play is rife with topical contemporary themes woven into the fabric of the exotic and compelling drama of Scheherazade, whose legendary storytelling abilities preserved the life of all the young women in her kingdom for 1,001 nights, until her king relented in his nightly deflowerings and beheadings.
Expanding on the dreamy quality of a narrative spun out by troubadours and translators for more than a millennium, Grote parlays the humor of Freudian slips, Spoonerisms and malapropisms into hyperlinks that bridge old Baghdad to modern Iraq, the battle of the sexes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the assassins of ancient Persia to modern Manhattan at the time of 9/11.
As the opening kaleidoscopic chorus tells us while circling a body on a gurney, “There is only one story…,” and it contains “…all the words ever spoken.”
The scribe lives up to this billing with a first-rate drama of his own — a love story between two college students, Dahna, an American-educated Kuwaiti (Lanna Joffrey), and Alan, a Jewish American (Josh Philip Weinstein), who also play Scheherazade and King Shahriyar.
Like Ali Baba’s famous passwords, “Open sesame,” Grote’s fertile imagination rolls back the stone guarding a treasure-trove of exotic language and romantic subject matter from such diverse stories as Aladdin and Sinbad and spreads a cornucopia of glittering ideas and magical effects in wide arcs throughout the round theater.
Joffrey is pitch-perfect expressing the confident and persuasive voice of Scheherazade, letting her father (John Livingstone Rolle), the vizier, have it over his inaction concerning the king’s murderous obsession. Grote’s plot device of double-casting the original players with modern counterparts allows Joffrey to deepen Scheherazade’s character beyond the original strict narrative-framing function. She also plays Dahna to heartfelt effect– wrestling with Palestinian politics, traditional Muslim values, 9/11 and online romance.
The mirrors of contempo action also facilitate the evolution of Shahriyar, from a brash and selfish young man to an ultimately forgiving and redeemable ruler (at least by medieval standards). Here, Weinstein captures both the prince’s hollow bravado and the forthright thoughtfulness of Alan, Dahna’s boyfriend.
A panoply of equally colorful ancient characters is likewise mutated into present-day personalities by Grote’s free-associative hand and the multitalented ensemble. Jeanine Serralles is a hoot as Dahna’s gold-lame-clad sister, who tries to steer her sibling away from the Jewish b.f. and bring her back into the family fold with a handsome and wealthy Arab. Serralles also provides a steady stream of ravishing seductresses to enliven the proceedings.
Rolle summons a compelling series of powerful men, from the spiritual effervescence of a blind Jorge Luis Borges to the blinding laser intensity of Osama bin Laden. Daoud Heidami delivers an assortment of playful presences, ranging from the Djinn, Sinbad and the One-Eyed Arab with two eyes, to the weightier complexities of Alan Dershowitz and a besieged Palestinian householder. Drew Cortese delights while exploring the extremes of the story’s sexual spectrum, from the lusty Gustave Flaubert, the incestuous Yahya and the suave Asser, to the emasculated Eunuch and the angry Orthodox Jewish student.
Helmer McSweeny pulls out all the stops to carry Grote’s Google-inspired mental hopscotch onto the stage. He employs one of Denver’s top DJ’s, Sara Thurston, for a live mix that taps into contemporary emotions latent in the hybrid storyline, a potent lure for the twentysomething demographic.
Thirty-one economical scenes punctuated by stunning craft work lend a quick-cutting, cinematic texture that suggests possible adaptability to the bigscreen.