For a classical play, the Boston College Theatre Department’s production of The Arabian Nights certainly evoked modernity more than most pieces invoking Allah, the Quran, and the murder of an army of virgins do.
Directed by John Houchin, the play presents itself as a fortune cookie within a fortune cookie of sorts, riddled with hidden meanings, poignant lessons, and a mesmerizing array of in-scenes that the actors must keep track of in order to keep the production from derailing. BC’s cast and crew were more than up to the task, snappily recreating the tale of Shahyryar (Chris Gouchoe, A&S ’13), a king wronged by a promiscuous wife, now bent on taking revenge against the kingdom’s virgins by slaying a new bride each night. When he turns to his advisor (Stephen Wu, A&S ’14) for his daughters in search of his latest conquest, the eldest girl (a captivating Thais Menendez, A&S ’14, as Scheherezade) resorts to the trickery of storytelling to delay what seems an inevitable demise.
What ensues is a collection of vignettes that serve several dizzying purposes. The play never strays from the main narrative-that is, that Scheherezade’s life is hanging by a very literal thread)-but also presents alternating scenes of slapstick and moral quandaries, with the cast rotating roles, however fleeting they may be.
One of the most engaging players of the evening managed to juxtapose moments of brevity and those of weightier concerns. From slave to shop owner, prisoner to exalted scholar, Leo Magrini, A&S ’13, kept the audience guessing with truly inspired acting decisions. His was a chameleonic performance that consistently redefined itself in a beat, and the tale in which he was protagonist-a story of heartbreak and trickery that resulted in his character’s imprisonment in a madhouse-proved to be the highlight of the bunch.
The production’s lush, fully realized sets (a product of Crystal Tiala) seemed perfectly out of place in the stately theater, presenting the exact gateway to a faraway place that Arabian Nights so adroitly evokes. Revolving pieces dropped from the ceiling, never ornate enough to detract from the performances on the stage. Similarly, the play was presented with the accompaniment of an oud and a dumbek, a necessary drum and string combination that offered a woozy, authentic aura to the evening. A chorus of dancers also did a lovely-and oftentimes hilarious, in the case of the skilled and underused Taleen Shrikian, A&S ’15, a true delight whenever she graced the stage-job of bringing the stories to life with inspired choreography by Sun Ho Kim.
Although the first half of the show seemed awfully top-heavy by the time intermission rolled around, its second half breezed by due to the skill and tact of the actors onstage. The only off-kilter moment arose in the play’s final breaths, as, following the narrative’s logical conclusion, the stage shook and lights quavered as the sound of bombs dropping echoed. It was a peculiar politically tinged statement that stood out as off-kilter due to the otherwise storied, classical nature of the story itself. It fell flat but luckily appeared late in the game so as not to sully the otherwise sterling Arabian Nights.
At its core, The Arabian Nights presents the observer with a series of situations that build on themselves so intricately to demonstrate both the fragility of life and the emphasis on cultural connectivity. A show that relies on pitch-perfect timing in order to keep its cogs moving in perfect harmony, it represents an era in which classical learning and stories of moral ambiguity were valued as essential teaching tools. There’s something to be learned from the BC Theatre Department’s production of The Arabian Nights, and for a few fleeting hours, the talented cast, crew, and orchestra transported those in the theater to a different world.
While familiar names like Jafar made brief appearances, the production was more about an air of exoticism than familiarity. It jolted its audience with thought-provoking choices and, ultimately, provoked just enough to force us all to consider our own choices for a moment.