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1001

[The following review is scheduled to appear in Variety the week of February 4th.]

Building on the extravagant embellishments gathered under the collective literary umbrella known as "The Arabian Nights," playwright Jason Grote delivers a phantasmagoric take on the timeless tales that is explored to visual and emotional perfection by director Ethan McSweeny and the cast and crew of the Denver Center Theatre Company.

Jeanine Serralles as the Virgin Bride and Josh Philip Weinstein as Shahriyar
Jeanine Serralles as the
Virgin Bride and
Josh Philip Weinstein
as Shahriyar
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Serving as the showcase event of DCTC's upcoming second annual Colorado New Play Summit (Feb. 9-10), the world premiere of Grote's 1001 is rife with topical contemporary themes woven into the fabric of the exotic and compelling drama of Scheherazade, whose legendary storytelling abilities preserved the life of all the young women in her kingdom for 1001 nights, until her king relented in his nightly deflowerings and beheadings.

Daoud Heidami as Sinbad
Daoud Heidami as Sinbad
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Expanding on the dreamy quality of the narrative that has been worked over by troubadours and translators for over a millennium, Grote parlays the humor of Freudian slips, Spoonerisms, and Malapropisms into hyperlinks that bridge old Baghdad to modern Iraq, the battle of the sexes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the assassins of Ancient Persia to modern Manhattan at the time of 9-11.

Lanna Joffrey as Dahna and Josh Philip Weinstein as Alan
Lanna Joffrey as Dahna and
Josh Philip Weinstein as Alan
Photo: Terry Shapiro
After all, as the opening kaleidoscopic chorus tells us while circling a body on a gurney, "There is only one story…" and it contains "… all the words ever spoken." The scribe lives up to this billing with a first-rate drama of his own—a love story between two college students, Dahna, an American-educated Kuwaiti (Lanna Joffrey) and Alan, a Jewish American (Josh Philip Weinstein), who also play Scheherazade and King Shahriyar.

Like Ali Baba's famous passwords, "Open, Sesame," Grote's fertile imagination rolls back the stone guarding a treasure-trove of exotic language and romantic subject matter from such diverse stories as Aladdin and Sinbad and spreads a cornucopia of glittering ideas and magical effects in wide arcs throughout the round theatre.

Josh Philip Weinstein as Shahriyar and Lanna Joffrey as Scheherazade
Josh Philip Weinstein as Shahriyar
and Lanna Joffrey as Scheherazade
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Lanna Joffrey is pitch perfect expressing the confident and persuasive voice of Scheherazade, letting her father, Wazir (John Livingstone Rolle), the vizier, have it over his inaction concerning the king's murderous obsession. Grote's plot device of double-casting the original players with modern counterparts provides Joffrey with the opportunity to deepen Scheherazade's character beyond the original strict narrative-framing function, which the thesp plumbs to heartfelt effect as Dahna—who wrestles with Palestinian politics, traditional Muslim values, 9-11, and online romance.

The mirrors of contemporary action also facilitate the evolution of Shahriyar, from a brash and selfish young man to an ultimately forgiving and redeemable ruler (at least by medieval standards). Here, Josh Philip Weinstein captures both the hollow bravado of the prince and the forthright, thoughtfulness of Alan, Dahna's boyfriend.

Jeanine Serralles as the Virgin Bride
Jeanine Serralles as the Virgin Bride
Photo: Terry Shapiro
A panoply of equally colorful ancient characters is likewise mutated into present-day personalities by Grote's free-associative hand and the multi-talented ensemble. Jeanine Serralles is a hoot as Dahna's gold lamé-clad sister, Lubna, who tries to steer her sibling away from the Jewish boyfriend and bring her back into the family fold with a handsome and wealthy Arab suitor. Serralles also provides a steady stream of ravishing seductresses to enliven the proceedings.

John Livingstone Rolle as Jorge Luis Borges
John Livingstone Rolle
as Jorge Luis Borges
Photo: Terry Shapiro
John Livingstone Rolle summons a compelling series of powerful men, from the spiritual effervescence of a blind Jorge Luis Borges to the blinding laser intensity of Osama bin Laden. From Daoud Heidami springs an assortment of playful presences, ranging from the Djinn, Sinbad, and the One-Eyed Arab with two eyes, to the weightier complexities of Alan Dershowitz and a besieged Palestinian householder. Drew Cortese delights while exploring the extremes of the story's sexual spectrum, from the lusty Gustave Flaubert, the incestuous Yahya, and the suave Asser, to the emasculated Eunuch and the angry orthodox Jewish student.

Drew Cortese as Flaubert
Drew Cortese as Flaubert
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Helmer McSweeny pulls out all stops to carry Grote's Google-inspired mental hopscotch onto the stage, hiring one of Denver's top DJ's, Sara Thurston, for a live mix that taps into contemporary emotions latent in the hybrid storyline, a potent lure for the twenty-something demographic. Thirty-one economic scenes punctuated by stunning craft work lend a quick-cutting, cinematic texture that suggests possible adaptability to the big screen.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Jason Grote's 1001 runs through February 24th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

 

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