Houda Echouafni and Saad Al Ghefari throw themselves fully into epic two-part production.
ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS dramatized and directed by Tim Supple, stories adapted by Hanan al-Shaykh (Dash Arts/Luminato). At the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (227 Front East). To June 19. Both parts $88-$207, single tickets $49-$115. 416-368-4849, luminato.com. See listing Rating: NNN
A celebration of the power of storytelling, the Dash Arts production of One Thousand And One Nights offers hours of theatrical inventiveness and pleasure, even if at this point it's not a fully developed show.
Running six hours, the two-part cycle draws from the legendary Arabic series of tales, by tradition a web spun by Shahrazad (Houda Echouafni), wife of King Sharayar (Assaad Bouab), who discovered an earlier wife cavorting with her slaves and killed her on the spot. To take revenge on women, the distrustful ruler beds a virgin each night and slays her in the morning so she won't betray him.
Shahrazad, daughter of the king's vizier (Said Bey), with the aid of her sister Dunyazad (Hajar Graigaa), enthralls the king each night with a story she can't finish, thus putting off her execution again and again when he's caught up in the tale.
The play begins and ends with this frame, related and linked stories filling in the middle. It's the theatrical equivalent of a daisy chain, one narrative opening into the next.
Deviser and director Tim Supple follows the device in his casting by having the same actors echoing various roles.
There are many wonderful staging moments, including the uncomfortable threesome of Shahrazad, Sharayar and Dunyazad; as the king rapes his new bride, she holds tightly onto her sister, finding solace in that family embrace.
Yes, rape. This isn't the Disney version of these stories, though they include music, song, dance and verse; they're filled with bloody revenge, violence and sex.
The cast of Arab performers, speaking English, French and Arabic (with translations for the latter two), throw themselves enthusiastically into the telling and the acting, playing commoners, rulers, slaves, jinn and demons. Production values are high, especially the musical direction by Ahmad Elsawy and Bastien Lagatta and Zolaykha Sherzad's gorgeous, shimmering costumes.
There's a point where the nature of the telling becomes repetitious and the style predictable. Still, One Thousand And One Nights is a big, adventurous undertaking, a celebration of the enticement of art as well as a study of human nature. I think it's still a work in progress; by my count, two of the tales mentioned in the program weren't shown. No question, though: this story cycle is worth hearing.