If you’re like most Americans, any mention of the “1001 Arabian Nights” conjures Technicolor images inspired by Disney. But Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin and the Genie are nowhere to be seen in the Bonstelle Theatre’s new production of “The Arabian Nights.” And for good reason.
When Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman adapted the collection of ancient Persian, Indian and Arabic tales into a resonating stage play, she deliberately left out the stories we know best. Instead of focusing on the fantastic, her funny, anachronistic retelling reveals and revels in the humanistic. Produced during the Gulf War, Zimmerman used the beloved, centuries-old stories to show audiences that, politics aside, we are all very much the same.
It works. Because we can’t help but understand that we are laughing, or cheering, or feeling sad for the characters in the same way that those ancient people must have.
In this Bonstelle production, directed by WSU PhD candidate Jennifer Goff, we are treated to a colorful, over-the-top show. The scenic design by Leazah Behrens is a lush swirl of carpets, silken drapes, tasseled pillows and all the trappings of an exotic Persian palace. The costumes by Donna Buckley are lavish and clever – designed to help the large cast play multiple roles.
This is still essentially the tale of Scheherazade, the young woman who must weave a new story every night in order to postpone the death sentence imposed by her misogynistic husband, the King Shahryar. But if you’re thinking about bringing the little kiddies, hold off. This version of “The Arabian Nights” is geared more toward the tastes of mature audiences.
The play opens with the king choking his first, unfaithful wife to death. Not so funny. Not so G-rated. These stories include violence, infidelity and even epic flatulence. Apparently, the comedic appeal of a good fart is universal. This show is funny. Surprisingly so. And the huge Bonstelle cast is just wonderful. With each new story that Scheherazade tells, the ensemble brings it to life. Every actor plays multiple roles – some serious, sad and romantic – but many of them are worthy of your favorite bit of slapstick. And we like these characters. We want them to survive, find their true loves and make lots of babies.
And that’s what Zimmerman is trying to tell us. As human beings, our stories are essentially the same. We weep when our hearts are broken. We laugh when someone breaks wind. We yield too often to temptation. But sometimes we do the right thing. And that makes life worth celebrating and sharing. Just like this charming Bonstelle production.
The spectacular Bonstelle company includes: Zyle Christian-Cook (Marcellus, MI) as Butcher and Others, Robert J. Hammond (Troy, MI) as Jester and Others, Ivy Haralson (Belleville, MI) as Perfect Love and Others, Garett Harris (Royal Oak, MI) as Boy and Others, Sharayah Johnson (Birch Run, MI) as Greengrocer and Others, Derell Jones (Detroit, MI) as Pastrycook and Others, Alyssa Lucas (Garden City, MI) as Abu al-Hasan and Others, Sydney Machesky (Allen Park, MI) as Dunyazade and Others, Taylor Morrow (Warren, MI) as Girl and Others, Jackson McLaskey (Mt. Clemens, MI) as Clarinetist and Others, Michael Meike (Clinton TWP) as Wazir and Others, Yesmeen Mikhail (Wyandotte, MI) as Scheherezade and Others, Luke Rose (Harrison TWP, MI) as Shahryar and Others, Laith Salim (Dearborn, MI) as Harun al-Rashid and Others, Nicholas Yocum (Royal Oak, MI) as Madman and Others and Lisa Youngs (Wyandotte, MI) as Sympathy the Learned and Others.
“The Arabian Nights” runs at The Bonstelle Theatre in Detroit through February 17. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15 and are available online, by phone (313) 577-2960, or by visiting the Wayne State University Theatres’ Box Office located at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.