WHAT ARE ANY OF US BUT A COLLECTION OF STORIES?
Collaboraction’s 1001 spins the audience into a delightful vertigo. This whirling postmodern adaptation of The Arabian Nights collapses time and space, drawing vital connections across wildly disparate cultures and eras.
Jason Grote’s poetic new play cleverly paces itself. After a shocking nuclear explosion, the collection of tales begins traditionally, narrated by a One-Eyed Arab (consummate storyteller H.B. Ward). To prevent the sultan Shahriyar (Joel Gross) from deflowering and then murdering her, the virgin bride Scheherazade (Mouzam Makkar) starts weaving a tapestry of neverending stories. Her interlaid tales soon stretch farther and farther from the ancient Orient.
The setup may feel protracted, but it lays the crucial foundation for the increasingly fast-paced storytelling to follow. From Vertigo to Jose Luis Borges, Sinbad the sailor to Osama bin Laden, 1001 soon erupts into a dizzying array of stories that blur the lines between the fictional and historical, cutting across genres, cultures, and times. With a swift onstage change of costumes (smartly designed by Kristen Ahern), each of the company members assumes multiple characters in the interlocking tales.
1001 could easily fly apart with such radically divergent parts. Yet Seth Bockley’s sharp direction gives a distinct physical vocabulary to each tale while illuminating the connections across them. Props are signified and resignified from one fable to the next, and words playfully leap across time. All humans, it seems, share an insatiable craving for a good story – and for love. Bockley draws as much attention to these fundamental links as to our spiraling surface differences.
In Act II, the budding relationship between a brainy Columbia University couple Dahna (an Arab) and Alan (a Jew) becomes the crux of the show. The cross-cultural romance between the present-day doubles of Shahriyar and Scheherazade gives particular continuity and contemporary weight to the play.
The immersive, post-9/11 set – a dank and dirty, post-apocalyptic subway station crafted by AJ Tarzian – likewise pushes into contemporary political relevance. Mac Vaughey’s stunning lighting design includes retractable work lights and spotlights, manipulated by the actors for different scenes of self-consciously theatrical storytelling. This abandoned subway station has become a bunker: no longer a place of travel and connection, but of isolation and estrangement. A place to hide from violent attacks like those of 9/11. A place to deny connection, to separate “us” and “them.”
Yet the global is always and already imbricated in the storytelling that happens inside the station. Collaboraction’s luminous theatrical production of 1001 is a poetic step towards understanding how storytelling cuts across boundaries and shapes our world. What would it mean to step out of the bunker and into the sunlight of these vital connections?
stellis @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Saverio Truglia
scheduled to end on August 28
for tickets, visit http://chicagocritic.com/1001-collaboration/
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com