Before Arabian Nights begins, Post Five's performers move about the theater. Clad in harem pants and embroidered vests, they squeeze into black vinyl pews, wrapping an arm around an audience member or exchanging pleasantries. That beginning sets a fittingly informal tone for Mary Zimmerman's 1994 adaptation of The 1001 Nights, which draws on Arab traditions of oral storytelling that encourage audience participation and dramatic gesture. Stories of sacrifice, endurance and generosity spiral into ribald tales of sex, greed and flatulence, and under director Philip Cuomo the play becomes a lively and often bawdy ode to the immersive power of storytelling, even if the inconsistent cast stumbles in the more reflective or cerebral moments.
With the low-ceilinged black box looking something like a bargain-basement harem—walls draped with gauzy curtains and the floor layered with Persian carpets—Arabian Nights begins with the cuckolded king Shahryar (Gilberto Martin Del Campo) wedding, bedding and slaying a fresh virgin each night. But when he marries the clever Scheherezade (Nicole Accuardi), she staves off his wrath by telling him story after story, always arriving at dawn with a sultry cliffhanger. As Scheherezade tells each tale, the large ensemble adopts a string of guises, becoming lovesick merchants, hip-swiveling temptresses, bulgy-eyed kings and, charmingly, an elephant.
The cast is most comfortable with comic tomfoolery and lusty pantomime, as when Jessi Walters plays a sexually voracious adulteress with a string of blue-collar lovers. From the flour-dusted pastry chef with his baguette-sized rolling pin to the marble-mouthed green grocer with a giant cucumber in tow, each lover milks his profession to the utmost phallic potential. Things turn even lower-brow with the tale of a king exiled for unleashing a colossal fart (the ensemble sings a cautionary ditty about chickpeas), but the highlight of the first act is a squabble over a magic bag. Waged between Sam Dinkowitz and Sam DeRoest, it's a heroic and hilarious game of one-upmanship, which, at least on opening night, incorporated the hand jive and Monty Python-esque accents.
But after a first act propelled by cheeky stories and earthy physicality, the cast struggles to keep its steam with the more plaintive stories of the second act. Stories feel more recited than performed, particularly problematic with Sascha Blocker's strangely smug wise woman. In the first act, the cast's exuberance distracts from certain problematic Orientalist elements—why must all the women be dressed like Jasmine from Aladdin?—but they begin to grind as the play winds on. It's compounded by the lack of a director's note or program to contextualize the play or its source material.
Still, while Post Five seems minimally interested in challenging perceptions of the Middle East, that's not really the purpose of Arabian Nights. When Scheherezade tells Shahryar that some of her stories "might seem licentious or lewd to those with gross or narrow minds," Shahryar instructs her to continue anyway. Here's hoping Post Five does the same. This is the young company's first non-Shakespearean foray, and while uneven, it establishes the troupe as a spunky force in Portland's theater scene. The performers' bawdiness might sometimes get the best of them, but with a few more rubs of the bottle, who knows what might be released?
SEE IT: Arabian Nights is at Milepost 5, 850 NE 81st Ave., 729-3223. 7 pm Fridays-Sundays through April 28. $10 Fridays-Saturdays, "pay what you can" Sundays.