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The Arabian Nights: A Cinematic Dive into the Middle-Eastern Culture of Storytelling

March 6, 2014

The Arabian Nights [Photo by Mike Hipple]

The Arabian Nights [Photo by Mike Hipple]

Cinematic, vibrant, and powerfully inspiring are just a few of the adjectives I can come up with to describe the latest UW School of Drama main stage production, The Arabian Nights. At a preview performance last week, I laughed, worried, wondered, and absorbed the stories told by Scheherazade on the brink of death from the blade of her husband, King Shahryar.

The Arabian Nights, adapted by Mary Zimmerman from the classic The Book of One Thousand and One Nights and directed by Professional Director Training Program student Leah Adcock-Starr, is a story of Scheherazade, who is trying to stay alive by telling stories. Every morning, the king, whose heart is darkened by the betrayal of his first wife, is determined to kill Scheherazade, but she figures out a plan to save herself and her sister. Each of the stories she tells is aimed to penetrate different parts of the king’s heart and by ending each story at a cliffhanger, she is able to live another night. And each tale is aimed at immersing the audience into the different aspects of the Middle-Eastern culture that is often overshadowed by politics and mainstream news.

“Scheherazade is a smart woman,” said Brianne Hill, who plays Scheherazade in the UW production. “She is a woman who so strongly believes in the power of storytelling that she thinks it will change a man’s heart and save her own life and the life of other women. She is an inspiration.”

Leah Adcock-Starr, director of the Arabian Nights [Photo courtesy of Leah Adcock-Starr]

Leah Adcock-Starr, director of the Arabian Nights [Photo courtesy of Leah Adcock-Starr]

Hill owns the stage when she starts telling Scheherazade’s stories. As a bell-like ring of finger cymbals marks the beginning of a new story, her voice and movements fill the small and intimate theater.  Ensemble actors perform the story, bringing her words to life.

This character is among the reasons why Adcock-Starr chose to direct The Arabian Nights. Another reason is Adcock-Starr’s love for storytelling. Being surrounded by theater in her childhood, it became her true passion.

“Theater is the only thing I know how to do and it’s how I understand the world – through storytelling,” said Adcock-Starr.

After speaking with Adcock-Starr and watching the play, I can absolutely see the love that she has for theater. All the little details that happen on stage and the way actors interact and seamlessly switch characters are done in a truly artistic and creative way. (Did I mention that there are a total of 15 actors and many of them take on four or five different roles?!)

The actors deserve a special acknowledgement. All these different personalities captured my attention from the beginning until the end. They made some of the most unlikable characters lovable and stuck with “the show must go on” motto when an unfortunate snoring man added a new soundtrack to the play. One of the actors even incorporated the incident into the play, which gained applauding approval from the audience.

The play has everything. It’s got humor, singing, dancing, tensions, passions, and danger. But something that people might not expect to see is the grander message that Adcock-Starr wanted to get across the most. “I think this is an anti-war play,” she said. “The work [done by the media] to try to make someone else ‘the other’ happens all the time. This play is about busting that apart. It’s about trying to make it much more difficult to distance and to recognize and celebrate the difference and humanity of one another. I think it’s hard to bomb someone that you recognize as similar to you.”

The idea of lifting the “veil from the king’s heart” and letting him see the brighter side of the world through Scheherazade’s storytelling is directly intertwined with idea of revealing the exotic culture of the Middle-East and seeing its people as something more than what we see on our TV screens. I believe the play was able to achieve its goal. I don’t want to give away the details of how this was accomplished, as it was one of the beauties of the play. You have to see it for yourself.

The Arabian Nights [Photo by Mike Hipple]

The Arabian Nights [Photo by Mike Hipple]

There are still four more performances this week. Attend one of the shows to enjoy the art of theater and the actors will take you into an unfamiliar world away from the upcoming finals.

“There are so many different stories that challenge the human heart,” Adcock-Starr said. “I’d love for the hearts of the audience to be moved in all those different ways and have a whole range of human experiences. If we could do that, it would be amazing.”

The Arabian Nights is being performed at the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse located at 4045 University Way NE. To buy tickets, click here!

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