I've often wondered what it would be like to lop someone's head off with a sword, or push someone I love from a great height to their splattery death below. I've never done these things in real life, though, because, among other things, the mess would be hell to clean up. Instead, I let storytellers invent gruesome, horrific tales to satisfy my bloodlust, and rather than go to jail, I head to the refreshment counter for more popcorn.
That's one of the beautiful things about stories: They allow you to go places and do things that in real life would get you into serious trouble. Stories also act as a kind of psychic pressure valve for society by allowing people to vicariously experience what it's like to be both a perpetrator and victim of unforgivable crimes ( Saw V, anyone?) without making them suffer the real-world consequences. In short, stories turn humanity's dark side into entertainment.
Jason Grote's 1001, at Mixed Blood Theatre, is in many ways an homage to the power and necessity of storytelling. The play borrows its basic structure from the legends of A Thousand and One Nights (aka Arabian Nights ), but updates it with storylines that overlap--sometimes humorously, sometimes tragically--into the modern world. The basic setup for an Arabian Nights tale is pretty much the same. King Shahriyar likes to sleep with virgins and chop their heads off in the morning, but he's running out of young women to slay. Enter Scheherazade, the daughter of one of the king's advisors, who forestalls her fate by mesmerizing the King with various stories-- Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor , and Aladdin's Lamp being among the most famous.
1001 is structured in a similar way and includes many familiar stories, but it also criss-crosses the space-time continuum to involve the lives of an Arab woman, Dahna (Fawzia Mirza) and Jewish man, Alan (Sid Solomon), who are graduate students living in modern-day Manhattan. Various narrators guide the plot along, connecting the traditional threads of such famous stories as Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin's Lamp with the modern-day travails of Dahna and Alan, who, it soon becomes clear, are connected to these tales by more than just culture and history.
Indeed, the play's Big Message is that life itself is one long, interconnected story with millions of little digressions. That message gets hammered home a little too forcefully at times, but the charm of it all is that 1001 doesn't take itself so seriously that it forgets to have fun. The narrators, particularly Randy Reyes, are irreverent and sometimes break out of character to respond to the audience. Also, the modern threads of the story make hilarious fun of Osama Bin Laden while still managing to deliver the point that today's current crises in the Middle East have roots that extend back hundreds if not thousands of years. And for all you ex-graduate students, playwright Grote includes a humorous digression in which Sinbad has a conversation on a beach with Argentinian poet and novelist Jose Luis Borges, who provides a historially accurate mini-lecture on how some of stories in A Thousand and One Nights , the iconic literary product of the Arab world, were actually written by Europeans. Entertaining performances by Emily Gunyou Halaas, Brian Sostek, and Andre Samples in multiple roles also make 1001 an easy play to sit through. It's short, too, clocking in at just over ninety minutes.
Thursday night, there were lots of high school kids in the audience, which makes sense, because this is a perfect play for teenagers. It's got enough irreverent humor to keep them entertained, but also acquaints them with one of the most ancient and important storytelling traditions of all time, and shows them how that tradition is relevant to their own lives in present-day, jihadist-threatened America. Plus, they get to see all kinds of beheadings, murders, betrayals, violence, debauchery, and sins against nature--all in the name of good-spirited, high-principled entertainment.
1001 continues at Mixed Blood Theatre through Nov. 23.