One Night, A Thousand Stories
Story by Jaclyn Morris
Photos Courtesy of Ariel Ogden
Theater was once divided in two distinct groups: tragedy and comedy. However, in the upcoming production of Arabian Nights, there is no division between the two. This collection of stories, based off A Thousand and One Nights, has stories and characters that can relate to anyone and contains many different situations that can leave you laughing or crying. Director Michael Najjar describes it as a tale of “faith, healing, and redemption” and it certainly fits this description.
The main story starts with King Shahrayar (Martin Diaz-Valdes) finding out that his wife is being unfaithful to him. After ordering her death, he decides that from that day forward, he will wed a new woman every night and send her to the headsman the next morning in order to avoid betrayal by women ever again. Shahrazad (Maggie Mae Stabile) is a courageous young woman who voluntarily weds herself to the king so that she may inspire in him a change of heart. This play showcases the many stories that Shahrazad uses to sway the king, including “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Es-Sindibad the Sailor,” “The Story of the Wife Who Wouldn’t Eat,” and “The Story of the Envious Sisters.”
We have all probably seen depictions of this story in the form of Disney’s Aladdin, but director Michael Najjar wanted to stay away from an Oriental representation of these tales.
“The vision for this production was to do the non-Disney version. I feel that the cartoon [Aladdin] and others like it really present an exotic Orient. I was much more interested in returning to primary sources. I spent a great deal of time looking at Persian manuscripts and different Islamic paintings and that was a great source of inspiration because they’re so colorful and imaginative.”
This means that, rather than containing bright colors and scantily clad women, this production stays true to its roots. The rich colors and intricate details of the costumes are evidence that bright colors are not needed to capture your attention. The women and men of this production are made beautiful not by a lack of clothing, but by the decorations adorning them.
“Even dancers from the period wore quite a lot of clothing,” Najjar adds. “For me, it was much more about the tone that tells about the real people of the period as opposed to a sort of fantasized version. This is not to say that the Persian manuscripts aren’t fantasized, but they are a vision into the world by the people who lived in that world, which is much more interesting than people looking back centuries later.”
Choreographer Devon Polynone was called to be a part of this production to contribute her knowledge of belly dancing. Polynone was given license by Najjar to completely choreograph “The Story of the Wife Who Wouldn’t Eat.”
“I was nervous about trying to tell the story without too much mime,” she remarks. “I wanted it to be more about movement. The way [the actors] embody the characters through movement has been incredible. They have blown me away.”
Dance has an integral role in this production, framing it from beginning to end. The first dance by Shahrazad is mystical and evokes a curiosity as to whom she is dancing for and what her dance signifies.
“Movement is so powerful and draws the imagination into thinking, ‘What is this?’ and maybe that’s the point of it: getting the viewer to start getting engaged in the story before it even happens,” Polynone says.
“I don’t think it’s your traditional piece of theater,” Derek Verhoest remarks about the upcoming production. Verhoest plays many different characters in the production, including Es-Sindibad the sailor. “I like that [Najjar] is not selling it out to be an American Arabian Nights but staying true to the elements of the original piece. I also like the amount of freedom that he has given us as far as characters go. We really have a lot of room to explore.”
In response to what draws people to see this production, Najjar says, “You could take this script and set it anywhere and you’d still have really important messages. For instance, a line in the play is, ‘A king can lose his way like anyone else but he can find his way back if the doors to his heart are open.’ There are beautiful poetic lines like that and little gems throughout the play. We all lose our way; we’re human beings. We get lost and do things we regret sometimes, but if we can get back to being open with the world around us we can find our way back.”
Arabian Nights runs from April 20-May 5 in the Robinson Theater in the Miller Theater Complex. All shows start at 8 pm except for the 2pm matinee on Sunday, April 29th. The ticket office is open an hour before the show. Free seating is available for students with a valid University of Oregon ID but must be reserved the day of the performance between 7 and 7:30 pm for evening performances and between 1 and 1:30 pm for the matinee performance. Tickets for UO Faculty/Staff and seniors are $12 and $14 for the general public. For more information, click here.