Nora/Underground Railway's "Arabian Nights": Persian Daze

Quality family fare is rare enough these days to cause one to celebrate when a gem like “Arabian Nights” reappears. The third outing for their 2011 success, this playful paring of the talents and resources of Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater is cause for rejoicing. As directed once again by Daniel Gidron, with its gorgeous production team virtually intact, this is a visual wonder. The creative team of Scenic and Puppetry Designer David Fichter (with Puppet Master Will Cabell), Lighting Designer Karen Perlow, Composer and Sound Designer Kareem Roustom, and especially Costume Designer Leslie Held continues to amaze. At its core, however, is not the technical splendor on view but the marvelous storytelling at its heart.

The central Persian story of Shahrazad (Sophori Ngin), bride number 1001 of the ruler Shahrayar (Vincent Ernest Siders) is only one of the myriad of sources for this multi-layered work. Adapted in 1998 by Dominic Cooke for London’s Young Vic from “1001 Nights”, this witty retelling of several ancient tales will bring back childhood memories for audiences familiar with such films as 1944’s “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, 1958’s “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, and Disney’s popular 1992 animated feature, “Aladdin”, or the written works of authors from Voltaire (“Candide”) to Stephen King (“Misery”). The several folk tales (from India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and other countries) that form the balance of this production requires the cast of four women (including Zena Chatila, Lindsey McWhorter and Jackie Davis) and five men (also featuring Yavni Bar-Yam, Alexander Cook, Elbert Joseph, and Andrew Tung) to fill some six or seven dozen roles, which they all do with fine timing and craft. Along the way they portray kings, slaves, hangmen, viziers, dervishes, cannibals, ghouls and grave robbers, in scenes featuring childbirth, dismemberings, throat slittings and stabbings.

Yes, you read that correctly. Though this is intended as a family show, there are a few elements that may be inappropriate for the youngest members of a typical family these days, depending on their level of sophistication. Then again, they won’t see anything here that isn’t a staple of television nightly news these days. The length of the show (over two and a half hours including intermission) might be sufficiently attention-span-challenging to postpone taking toddlers for another holiday season or more. There should be ample opportunity for them to grow into this show, as it should be around for many seasons to come, if there’s any justice in the theatrical world. Older children will delight in the scenes of belching and breaking wind. Theatergoers of all ages should be dazed (as in bedazzled) by the production’s light and color, its imaginative puppetry and pageantry, and the sheer exuberance shared by the entire cast.

The success of “Arabian Nights” is partly of course due to the inspired adaptation by Cooke. The first act could use some trimming, especially since the universally familiar Ali Baba story (think “Open, Sesame!”) takes up a good half hour or so to relate. Then again, it’s in this opening tale that Gidron’s direction is at its most creative and funniest, and his touch is the other major reason for the success of the work. (And, beyond the work of these two magicians, there are probably about 999 other reasons to see this show, such as this huge magic carpet….). As the narrator Shahrazad exhorts at the end of the stories: “Listen!”

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