Before Arabian Nights
begins, 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. 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 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 the clever Scheherezade (Nicole Accuardi) staves off his wrath by telling story after story. As she 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, and 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. But performers struggles to keep their steam with the more plaintive stories of the second act. In the first act, the cast’s exuberance distracts from problematic Orientalist elements—why must all the women be dressed like Jasmine from Aladdin
?—but they begin to grind as the play winds on. Still, 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. With a few more rubs of the bottle, who knows what might be released?
850 NE 81st Ave.Website: http://postfivetheatre.org/tickets