Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Spectacular Nights: One Thousand and One Nights

Luminato Festival, Toronto's premier arts festival, is well-served by its prime production, a new (and accurate) adaptation of One Thousand and Nights. Since its launch five years ago, I've had a soft spot for Luminato (running this year from June 10 – June 19, 2011). Perhaps the reason that I love it so much is because this festival is all Toronto's. It's not a copy of an event from somewhere else (our much-loved film festival, TIFF, is a redo of countless film festivals from around the world; Nuit Blanche, the night-long art exhibit going on all over Toronto this fall, is borrowed from Paris, etc.). Luminato may have taken inspiration from other things throughout the planet, but it has been given a unique Toronto spin in that almost all parts of the arts are represented during the week, much of it free, and there is truly something for everybody.

A highlight for me from the first year was the powerful waterfront spotlight installation called Pulse Front, which allowed the customers' heartbeat to create the pulse the light gave out as it shot into the night sky (you held two handles and, after a second, the sensors read your pulse which fed the light). Maybe a million years from now, a distant civilization will pick up this strange, very rhythmic light caused by my heartbeat from a galaxy far, far away and wonder, 'is that life?' Okay, I'm making idle speculation, but that's what makes this big, embracing festival work so well.

This year, it is the usual combination of free concerts (such as k.d. lang on Friday, June 17) and events combined with impressive ticketed events that make it so special. One production you must see is the often-exhilarating new version of One Thousand and One Nights. This is not the Arabian Nights of Ali Baba or Aladdin (those were a creation of a 17th century French translation), with stories to amuse children before bedtime. These are the tales (or 20 of them at least) as they were originally conceived 1000+ years ago: dark, menacing, violent, sexual, but also filled with ribald humour. It is also very adult. The production is mounted on a thrust stage with audience members on three of four sides. This creates a valuable intimacy.

Actress Houda Echouafni
The framing story for these tales is simple. King Shahrayar (Assaad Bouab) comes home after a long journey to find his wife and her serving women in the midst of an (explicit) orgy with her slaves. He single-handedly kills them and swears that he will never trust a woman again. He demands that his Vizier (Said Bey) bring him, each night, a virgin with whom he will have sex. In the morning, she will be killed. This happens night after night. Terror in the court is profound. One night, the Vizier's daughter, Shahrazad (Houda Echouafni), insists that her father give her to the King so she can stop the slaughter of any more innocent women. With her sister, Dunyazad (Hajar Graigaa), hiding under the bed, the King has his way with Shahrazad. Before he can have her killed, she begs to tell him a fantastical tale. He agrees. At the end of the tale, she leaves the story unfinished and asks the King if she could continue the story the next night. Amused and intrigued, he agrees. All the tales, of course, end on a cliff-hanger where the King (and we too) want to hear “what happened next.” In this way, Shahrazad extends her life by another day. British director Tim Supple, working with adapter Hanan al-Shaykh, has created a mesmerizing, two-part, six-hour production.

To set the frame firmly in the audience's mind, the first tale of The Fisherman and the Jinni (Genie) is told with Shahrayar, Shahrazad and Dunyazad all sitting on stage as the actors playing the fisherman (Falah Ibrahim) and the Jinni (Abdelhalim Zrelby) enact the tale. This is not a genie giving three wishes; this is the tale of a vengeful Jinni who, after 500+ plus years locked away in a bottle, will give the person who frees him a choice in how he will be killed by Jinni. Vengeance is a major motif throughout all these tales. To lock the frame and stories further in mind, the first tale is only partially told. The actors playing the Fisherman and Jinni freeze on stage as Shahrazad negotiates with Shahrayar to continue the tale the next night and therefore prolong her life. It is an effective device that, used this one time, does not get used again because we are now quite familiar with the premise.

Director Tim Supple
The next story, which takes up the rest of Part One, is actually one story broken into six different parts. The Porter and the Three Ladies tells the tale of a Porter (Ramzi Choukair) who is tempted into the home of three seemingly independent sisters (Ichouafni, Graigaa and Nanda Mohammad). He finds himself trapped there and is soon joined by three Dervishes (all blind in one eye and, in one case, without his fingers) plus three Merchants. The Mistress of the House (Mohammad) insists that in order to gain their freedom from this strange place, each man in turn, starting with the Porter, must tell the women the story of who they are and how they got there. If the origins story pleases the women, the teller will be spared. The fact that all the stories are variations on the very fate that awaits Shahrazad adds compelling onion-like layers to the material. Some critics complained in their reviews over the weekend about repetition. For me, that very repetition is why these tales worked so well. And, in fact, my research after seeing the production shows that repetition has been one of the main points of all 1001 tales.

In these stories, another overarching theme is that it’s the men who do wrong consistently. One tale shows the pathetic cowardice of one Dervish, the next demonstrates the weakness of another as he mistakes lust for love resulting in the demise of his soul mate. It goes on and on like this with compelling intensity until, at the end of Part One, Shahrazad leaves us and the King dangling about the one story we have not yet been told: how did the three women come to be in this strange home? It is at that point that Part One finishes.

Rachid El Adouani, Saad Al Ghefari and Ramzi Choukair
Another reason this works so well is because each and every actor, without exception, is exceptional. Since there are so many to talk about, I will confine myself to just one. In the story told by the third Dervish, Rachid El Adouani plays a malicious slave whose words causes the Dervish (Saad Al Ghefari) to suspect his wife of infidelity. The Dervish slaughters his wife, cuts her into 18 pieces and tosses her remains into the Tigris (an inspiration for Shakespeare's Othello?). The malignant indifference El Adouani brings to the role is chilling. Yet later, in the desperately needed comic relief of The Tailor and the Hunchback (this story, which spirals into stories within stories within stories within stories, comes just after the shocking intensity of the third Dervish's violent, sad tale), El Adouani plays a Jewish Doctor with the comic timing and loose-limbed antics of Dick van Dyke. (Was this tale an inspiration for Chaucer's ribald stories? Possibly.) Considering the quality of the performances here, he remains just the tip of the iceberg.  Speaking of outstanding, I'd be remiss if I did not mention the meticulous playing of the musicians accompanying the actors as they perform. They are Ahmad Elsawy, Bastien Lagatta, Mohamed Samy, Laith Fisal Ali Suleiman and Hend Zouari.

Due to circumstances, I was only able to see Part One last Saturday afternoon, so my review only covers this portion for now. I will be seeing Part Two on Wednesday evening; therefore I will place an addendum at the end of the post on Thursday. This actually may be to Part Two's benefit. I have found over the years that watching TV shows on DVD seeing episode after episode that sometimes the over-saturation ends up weakening the latter tales. I'll let you know if it does when you come back to the end of this post on Thursday.

1001 Nights Musicians in Rehearsal.
One final thing I do need to add, but I chose not to include in the overall review above, was the technical havoc that existed on the opening afternoon. This is especially important for the international audience as this show moves from Toronto to Chicago and then to the Edinburgh Festival (it was announced on June 17 that the Chicago production has been canceled because some of the cast and crew's visas could not be completed in time. Edinburgh is still happening). The production was in a combination of Arabic, French and English, with surtitle screens at stage right, stage left and on either side of the proscenium. The effect was to permit the audience, no matter where they sat, to see the surtitles for the French and Arabic. Unfortunately, there were numerous problems on the opening with these screens. The biggest was that for most of the first 20 minutes they did no work properly, so unless you spoke Arabic or French, you had to piece together from the playbook during intermission what was happening.

The English in the production was definitely the junior partner (in Part One, anyway, in Part Two English is much more prominent). The acoustics were a bit weak, too, so because of the actor's accents, the English was a bit hard to understand. But it was not really that big an issue as long as you concentrated. One other problem faced by the audience on the sides of the stage was that the screens were too low, so the actors moving around the stage often blocked your sight-lines to them. Sometimes the lighting obliterated the screen too. You frequently had to turn your head completely away from the action to read another screen. More screens (up higher), and a secure program, would have fixed this problem. It did throw me out of the production time and time again because even when the surtitles were working you kept expecting them to crash. So you were constantly thinking “oh no, here we go again,” if they were a bit late in coming. Yet these performers, and the material, were so compelling that irritation quickly dissipated and I was pulled back into this wonderful world of stories and tall tales.

Addendum: One Thousand and One Nights, Part Two (Posted June 16, 2011)

“How great is the cunning of women.” Those words, which come part way through Part Two of One Thousand and One Nights, are the perfect summary of the latter half of this fine production at Luminato. If Part One was about the violence and anger of men, then Part Two is the other side of the coin. It is about the petty jealousy and duplicity of women (especially towards each other). As we enter Part Two, Shadrazad comes on stage and recaps Part One. Immediately, we are plunged into the stories of how the three women came to be at that house.

Actress Nanda Mohammad
The evening begins with The Mistress of the House's Story. The Mistress, played by Nanda Mohammad, relates how the once five sisters were torn apart by jealousy, treachery and desire. The women vow never to marry and remain faithful to each other. Twice, that vow is broken by the two older sisters who leave the home to marry. Twice they return, shamed. When The Mistress finds love with Azraq Blue (the exceptional Rachid El Adouani with another fine turn), a Jinni who is willing to live as a human for her, the older sisters are consumed by jealousy and do whatever they can to destroy the couple. Blue discovers what they have done and in his anger he turns them into two dogs. He informs The Mistress that each night she must viciously beat these two dogs. If she does not, they will die (we saw this occur in Part One, but without explanation).

In Part One, all the stories locked together seamlessly. Playing on repetition and variations, the stories built to a compelling finish. Part Two is not quite as seamless. Some of the stories, such as this one, just go on far too long. Though well told (the Jinni's real appearance is as a raven, and El Adouani makes you believe that's what he is with a simple costume change, vocalizing and expert movement), the point of the story could have easily been told in half the time.

The later story, Budur and Qamar Al Zaman, has a similar problem. Two Jinns have a bet about whether a prince in Baghdad and a princess in China is better looking. So through magic, for one night, they bring them together and then tear them apart. Their action destroys the sanity of each lover. It's a bit more complicated than that, but it does go on and on. The other problem, ironically, is that at a few points during the second evening, they introduce new stories that could easily stand alone while abandoning the repetitive structure they originally set up.  As a result, they dilute their power because it is actually the 'themes and variations' that make this play a cohesive whole. When that is temporarily abandoned, the play begins to unravel.

Also, the attempt at comic relief here, Dalila The Wily, doesn't work as well as it should. The tale, about a con woman who manages to trick a long series of men (and a woman) in order to convince the Caliph to give her her now-deceased husband's pension, works only fitfully. Amal Omran as Dalila is a touch weak here because she lacks the inspired physical comedy achieved by the whole cast in Part One's The Tailor and the Hunchback.

Actor Assaad Bouab
However, if Part Two is not as strong as Part One, there are some moments of sublime beauty. The moving and understated The Shopper's Story, where the Caliph (Assaad Bouab) falls in love with one of the three sisters, The Shopper (Houda Echouafni). The Caliph's wife, Lady Zubeida (Ava Farhang), supposedly welcomes her warmly into the palace, but secretly she despises her for pulling the Caliph away. The Lady drugs The Shopper so it looks like she has died. The Caliph mourns and buries her. The Shopper awakens in her coffin (inspiration for Sleeping Beauty and Poe's The Premature Burial?) and is rescued by a young merchant. When the Caliph learns she lives, he believes the lies of Zubeida and threatens to have The Shopper executed as an adulteress (it is suggested she had an affair with the young merchant). Houda Echouafni was brilliant in this tale. Thinking about it now brings goosebumps to my arms. Her grief and pain was so realistically depicted that her anguish practically flooded off the stage. In moments like this, Part Two topped Part One. The acting, writing and direction all came together in ways that both thrilled and moved me.

Houda Echouafni & Saad Al Ghefari
If Part Two is not as impressive as Part One it has nothing to do with the cast. Since this Luminato staging was the world premier (it was actually commissioned by Luminato), there is still time to fine tune some of the issues (they obviously tried to address that before it was mounted as two tales mentioned in Part Two's playbill were not presented). Yes, you can see just Part One and probably be quite satisfied, but you would be missing out on The Shopper's Story, Rachid El Abouani's turn as Azraq Blue, plus the sweet and loving penultimate tale The Resolution of the Porter and the Three Ladies, where a young woman has to choose between her poor Bedouin husband and the Caliph himself. Her decision may be a bit sentimental, but it is a moment, just before the end, that is well earned.

One Thousand and One Nights was impressive on a lot of levels, but what I found most heartening, in a play many have called a feminist interpretation, is that neither men nor women are let off the hook. Both have their dark sides exposed and the troubling nature of male/female relationships is well examined. However, a path to true love and understanding is also presented.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to www.wordplaysalon.com for more information

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