“Evocative and reflective” Arabian Nights brings folk tales to live theatre

As the final piece in UBC Theatre's season of female-written plays, they are presenting Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical production of Arabian Nights. With that, audiences should expect a massive and diverse performance overload.

Based on the original collection of Middle-East and South Asian folk tales labeled One Thousand and One Nights, the play tells the story of King Shahryar. After his original wife engages in adultery, Shahryar marries a different woman from his kingdom every night and executes them the next morning. 

With the number of women dwindling every day, Shahryar eventually marries the daughter of his vizier – Scheherezade. However, she manages to avoid her doom through telling different compelling stories to Shahryar each night. It is an effort not just to save the remaining women in the kingdom, but to also hopefully save the king from his poisoned soul — and that is only the frame story.

With the overall premise and format of the play, this presented a slew of challenges for the cast and crew according to the director and MFA candidate, Evan Frayne. This is especially the case in presenting Scheherezade’s different tales with their own unique production characteristics that include dance, live music and dozens of more roles to fill.

“It’s not just a room or a kitchen with actors in there throughout the play. It spans time [and] different locations … it’s a really wide spectrum of challenges in terms of performance,” he said. 

However, it was mainly challenges like these that compelled him to choose the production.  

“As a director and an actor, a lot of my work is in naturalistic and realistic plays and I feel quite comfortable in those worlds. So I wanted to pick something outside of that, that would challenge me and this play is very multifaceted.”

Francis Winter, the graduating theatre student who plays the role of Shahryar, also wants to do the production and his role justice through his performance. This is particularly important since his role does not fit the typical antagonist archetype.

“It was so easy to hate Shahryar for what he does, [but I wanted] to make him, in some ways, relatable and pitied. If he was any other person … he would be extremely pitiable figure,” said Winter. “The tale is really one of redemption for him and it’s about [the] ingenuity and love that Scheherezade brings in to his life and how that cures him of the intense sickness that he feels.”

These challenges aside, both Frayne and Winter are eager to show what they have developed for the audience. According to Frayne, the production started as grounded and minimalist, but eventually evolved into one that is more “evocative and reflective” of the culture the original text is based on.

Ultimately, both hope that the production — the stories within it and the source text — manages to wow its spectators and simultaneously teach important lessons as well.

“It gives us an enormous amount of insight and understanding [on] many of the [related] cultures and cultural practices. Obviously, it’s a very different culture now, but it still has some of its roots in these stories,” said Winter, who also mentioned the story’s moral for the audience. “I’d say understanding and gain a sense of empathy [and compassion] for people in their life whom they might be tempted to view as the antagonists of their own personal story.”

“These stories have been so influential in Eastern cultures and Western cultures. They’ve been in opera, classical music. [There have been] comic books, animation and films made from these stories,” said Frayne. “They should expect a real extravaganza of [performances]. I mean I was moved when I read the play, so I hope that it moves the audience.”