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|Written by Wayne Current|
|Tuesday, 20 October 2009 00:00|
On Friday, October 16, I was pleased to attend Evolution Theatre's production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's challenging play Arabian Night.
The title of Schimmelpfennig's play is a reference to One Thousand and One Nights (often known to English One of the strongest casts assembled this year.readers as Arabian Nights), a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk stories from the Islamic Golden Age. Richard Burton's 19th century translation is probably the most well known version in Western culture.
In Arabian Nights, a Persian king is convinced of the innate infidelity of women. Unwilling to suffer the humiliation of an unfaithful wife, he decides to marry only virgins. In order to guarantee their fidelity, he has them executed immediately following the wedding night. His kingdom rapidly exhausts its supply of virgins, so the vizier charged with finding virgins has no choice but to offer his own daughter, Scheherazade, to the king
On her wedding night, in an attempt to stave off execution, Scheherazade begins telling the Persian king a story that can never end. Through the power of her narrative, she is able to post-pone her death for a 1001 nights.Scheherazade's story is a fluidly layered narrative of overlapping tales. Her protagonists will often, in the middle of their own story, begin telling a story of their own making. Quite frequently, that story will have another story told within it.
Schimmelpfennig draws from these layered narratives for his Arabian Night by incorporating a series of overlapping monologues. Through these layered voices, the story of five characters interacting in an apartment building on a hot summer night is told.
Modern scholars have suggested the fascination with "the East" by 18th and 19th century Orientalists like Burton was the result of a desire to define Western culture in opposition to a fabricated Orient. As constructed by Westerners, the Orient was exotic, decadent, brutally violent, and highly eroticized; the very opposite of the rational, principled, progressive West. These dichotomies and cultural (real and imagined) tensions continue to play out in Schimmelpfennig's modern erotic-urban-thriller script.
In Arabian Night, Franziska (played skillfully by Kate Smith), a blonde haired, blue eyed woman, dreams of being a wife in a sheik's harem - an erotic image lifted directly from Orientalist tradition. Franziska's fetishization of the East is then projected onto her Islamic roommate Fatima's (Emily Pearlman) lover, Kalil - a man of eastern decent. In an interesting twist, Kalil's (Bradlely Cunningham Long) fetishization of a blue eyed, blonde haired white women mirrors Franziska's Orientalist sexual fantasies. Neither character is able to really see the other because they are blinded by the veils of Orientalism and Occidentalism. It is only Franziska's roommate Fatima (Emily Pearlman) who sees both Kalil and Franziska as they truly are - revelations which ultimately cause her incredible pain.Director Natalie Joy Quesnel has done an excellent job of comple- menting the overlapping and textured nature of the script.
Director Natalie Joy Quesnel has done an excellent job of complementing the overlapping and textured nature of the script with appropriately layered and textured movement. The actors travel around the stage in a seemingly random fashion, and characters are often "caught" in repetitive movements from their last monologue, even though the narrative itself has moved on. While this choice makes the plot more challenging to follow, it also heightens the tension by lending a listless surreal quality to the performance. (It should be noted that if you are not seated in the centre of the audience, you will, at times, have an obstructed view of the action. I recommend arriving to the show early in order to secure centrally located seats.)
Given sensitivities related to the cultural fetishes, myths, and stereotypes playing out on stage, Evolution Theatre would have benefited from approaching the Muslim community to either cast the Muslim roles in the play, or to provide advice concerning cultural appropriateness of certain choices. Had this been done, I believe a revelatory scene involving a hajib would have been omitted, and Arabian Night would have benefited as a whole from its removal.
That being said, this is one of the strongest casts assembled this year, and I enjoyed watching their performances very much. Go check this show out for yourself and then add a comment below about your thoughts on the play.
Arabian Night is playing at the Cube art gallery located at 7 Hamilton St. North, Ottawa ON. Tickets are $15 for students and $20 for adults. It runs from October 14- 24, 2009. For more info visit: http://www.evolutiontheatre.ca/
Wayne Current is a writer, communications expert, director, and blogger. Check out manyfacesofwayne.wordpress.com for more of his work.
Tags: arabian night, bradlely cunningham long, emily pearlman, evolution theatre, kate smith, natalie joy quesnel, orientalism, review, richard burton, sexuality, theatre