The plushest pillows and carpets have been laid, the lights dimmed invitingly. Serpentine, hypnotic melodies, courtesy of one of the kingdom’s finest musicians, lure an audience for re-styled tales from The Book of the Thousand Nights & One Night. In the Constellation Theatre’s buoyant Tenth Anniversary production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights (★★★), all that’s missing is the incense, and some of the arresting heat one hopes might be inflamed by these timeless parables of lust and danger.
There’s grace and precision in the staging of director Allison Arkell Stockman’s saucy vignettes, which unfold as stories within stories within stories, featuring a dozen players — including the show’s taqiyah-sporting composer and one-man-band Tom Teasley — animating seemingly 1,001 characters over the course of two well-paced acts.
The tightly connected, engaging ensemble has fun with the play’s arch innuendoes (“Let us moisten our reed”) and blatant sexual silliness. Their collective brio sells most of the comedy, as well as the tales’ moral lessons on virtues like sympathy, prudence and generosity. The somewhat tame presentation stops short, however, of striking with enough bite to pierce beneath the quirky costumes and playful facades and make these stories stick.
As a storyteller, Scheherazade (Veronica del Cerro) — held captive by the tyrannical ruler Shahryar (Ryan Sellers), and forced to earn his mercy night after night — is more amusing than alluring. Weaving yarns about a more patient ruler, the fabled Harun al-Rashid (Kevin Sockwell), Scheherezade needs to entice and captivate her audience, to hold Shahryar at the edge of his seat as she fears the edge of his sword. Behind the tease of the temptress, her desperation should be palpable, to ensnare us all in her duress, but del Cerro’s portrayal skews more earnest than that.
Her Scheherazade connects to Shahryar as a teacher laboring brightly to hold the attention of a childish, self-indulgent pupil. It’s a valid reading, though lacking in potency. Sellers similarly is a solid lead who merely teases at manifesting Shahryar’s full, magnificent sweep. He evokes the beguiling self-regard of a capricious ruler, but not the menace or brutality that should have his captives and the audience shaking in their boots until he comes around.
Still, he and del Cerro are one with the entire cast, complicit in the general air of delight. Although, it’s more often the supporting cast members who unearth nuggets of treasure in their fast-changing, fundamental bits as the various knaves and maidens populating Scheherazade’s tales. As Perfect Love, Yesenia Iglesias captures the mystery and poetry in the storytelling, while Lilian Oben’s Sympathy the Learned proves a winning comic and dramatic foil for every challenger she faces. Shravan Amin, wily and charged as one tale’s Madman, essays his host of roles with gratifying conviction, and Helen Hayes Award-winning player Matthew Aldwin McGee (incidentally, also the show’s Prop Designer) nails the target of just-this-side of too much in an enjoyable turn as a court jester.
Adding heartily to the good time are Teasley’s galloping music, comfortably in the worldly vein of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Veronique Kim Tran’s understated yet effective choreography. Like the show itself, the dancing slinks, whirls, and skips ever so lightly, but only rarely does it spin beyond the stage into something truly magical.
Arabian Nights runs to June 4 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 202-204-7741, or visit ConstellationTheatre.org.
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