Central Square Theater Mounts Enchanting ‘Arabian Nights’ (4 Stars)

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 Arabian Nights‘ – Adapted by Dominic Cooke; Directed by Daniel Gidron Produced by The Nora Theatre Company & Underground Railway Theater at the Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge through 12/29.

If you haven’t thought about where to bring your family this holiday season that is both magical and not so much ‘Christmas-y’, Central Square Theater is the place to be. Arabian Nights brings all of the exciting adventures from the 1001 tales right before our eyes, in one of the most colorful and aesthetically-appealing shows I have seen in years. Since 2011, this piece has become a yearly tradition, which is such a great alternative for multi-cultural or non-Christian families, or people who just aren’t all for going to see White Christmas for the 15th time with Gramma.

First off, when you walk into the space, you will say, “Wow” because of how pretty everything is. That feeling is quickly followed by how happy you will be when you find that wherever your seat is, it’s stadium style so you or the little ones won’t be blocked by the 6 foot adult sitting in front of you. And that’s just the beginning.

The scene is set with a bitter King, who when he was betrayed by his wife, swore henceforth he would marry a new bride every night, and that she would not live to see the next day. His personal Vizier, after 1001 maidens have passed, is then convinced by his clever daughter to let her marry the King so that she may change the pattern of vengeance. Shahrazad, played by the enchanting Sophorl Ngin, entices the King with gorgeous tales of thieves, Kings, loyalty, deceit, treasures, and of course, humor. He stubbornly allows her to live, when he cannot contain his desire to hear more stories from his well-versed Queen.

With an incredible multi-roled cast, the tales are put together flawlessly amidst an open floor of colors, and a very little amount of set pieces. Each cast member impressively plays what seems like a dozen or so characters, each so important in telling the stories of the 1001 nights. They certainly do their job of tricking the audience into believing there is a much bigger world surrounding Es-Sindibad climbing the egg of a Rook. You imagine the pictures they describe are somehow right there with the scarce pieces that are physically present, and you know they believe this to be true when they are manipulating a string, or carrying a stuffed dummy.

Puppets make for some incredible story-telling tools, making me wish that they had implemented more of them, and sooner, into the piece. The set design alone was incredibly appealing, not to mention the gorgeous glittering costumes and the well-crafted puppets. There were shadows portraying action, a giant bird of wood and cloth circling the entire set, and even the actors themselves becoming set pieces with the swish of a cloak. The use of color in the puppets matched the surrounding set in such a perfect way. High praises must go to the designers David Fichter, Will Cabell, and the entire production staff.

I must applaud the actors for the overall execution of the stories told by Shahrazad. The vignettes moved so seamlessly into one another, that it was quite easy to forget that the King and his seemingly doomed wife even existed. I was to caught up in how the 40 thieves were to be thwarted by a slave girl, or whether long lost royal princes and a princess would be discovered through the directions of a wise and glittering talking bird. As an actor, I’m not sure I want to know how long they must have rehearsed to put something together with such perfect flow. They were so in tune with each other, you truly forgot about anything but that which was in front of you.

While overall Arabian Nights is a fantastic family show, I wouldn’t recommend it for children under 5. There were some children smaller than that present, however there were about 3 families that left after the first half of the show. I’d also recommend making sure to take a trip to the restroom before the piece starts. It was about 1 hour and 15 minutes before the intermission, which I felt was too long, let alone a few of the squirming kiddies. Also it seemed a little bit scary during a few stories for the very small children. But when I saw the kids during intermission, most of the kids were bouncing around and excited for the second half, so perhaps some of the fidgeting was for the bathroom.

This is a show that should be packed for every performance, because it is well-deserving of such an audience.  About half the crowd were adults without any children with them, and they were laughing louder than the kids across the section! It’s safe to say that Central Square Theater has this holiday season’s family show down pat, for all families, no matter what race nor creed. Make sure you get in and see this!! Parents should know: some content may be a bit scary for children under 5, or they won’t be able to sit through the entire experience – and make sure you all go to the potty beforehand! For more info, visit: www.centralsquaretheater.org/season/13-14/arabian-nights.html

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