‘Arabian Nights’ Casts an Irrestistible Spell (4 Stars)
‘Arabian Nights’ – Adapted by Dominic Cooke; Directed by Daniel Gidron. Presented by The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater, Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge through December 31.
Once upon a time there lived a king, Shahrayar, who was besotted with his beautiful queen. Upon discovering that she betrayed him by loving another, Shahrayar has her beheaded. From then on, he vows to take his vengeance out on all women by choosing a different bride each night, then beheading her in the morning. This satisfies his belief that there are no good women left in the world.
Shahrazad, the daughter of the king’s Vizier, is greatly disturbed, along with the rest of the kingdom, by the fact that scores of young girls are dying every day. An accomplished and engaging storyteller, Shahrazad begs her father the Vizier to allow her to marry the king, as she believes she has a way to stop the bloodshed. At first, her father refuses, then when he realizes she is serious, reluctantly allows the marriage to take place. Shahrazad, to save her life, tells the king a new story every day, to intrigue him into wanting more, thus putting off the executioner.
A play about stories so engaging that they prolong a death sentence had better be entertaining, and this production, adroitly directed by Daniel Gidron and featuring a talented cast, delivers. The set is stark but beautiful – a rich tapestry, like a beautiful Persian rug, covers the entire stage floor, with colorful drapes as a backdrop. David Fichter’s set gives the cast a very wide playing field, and the space is used well. The show incorporates the use of puppets, which Fichter also designed. They are wonderfully fun, and in the case of a large bird, which springs to life from a set piece, really beautiful. Snakes, wriggling on sticks handheld by the actors, slither quickly across the stage. Leslie Held’s costumes are clever and versatile – black capes are flipped on the actor’s backs to resemble gold nuggets, then flipped back to resemble black rocks a few stories later.
All of the actors play their multiple roles skillfully. As Shahrazad, Sophori Ngin, who was so affecting in “Sila” seen at the same theater earlier this year, has wonderful presence and conviction, with quick, graceful movements. Vincent Ernest Siders, as Shahrayar, is commanding and in the moment, not easy when you have to sit still and listen for long stretches at a time. Obehi Janice, who first speaks in the role of Marjinah, is a natural, with an ease onstage that makes you want to watch her. The able Christopher James Webb, as the Vezier and other roles, runs the gamut from pathos to hilarious and back again. And Brandon Green, as Ali Baba and other characters, manages to convey both dignity and lightness.
At two hours and thirty minutes, Arabian Nights is long, so I would think twice about bringing small children, who might be too restless to appreciate the marvel that this cast provides – although the actors were very good about delivering some of their lines to the kids. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/