Artwork by AUS Performing Arts Program
The Arabian Nights at AUS
by Nahla Elsubeihi
On April 23, 2015, I along with a group of friends had the pleasure of watching the Performing Art’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s retelling of The Arabian Nights at the American University of Sharjah. Upon settling in the front row seats, I looked around and spotted high school friends, colleagues, AUS faculty and staff, alumni, husbands, wives, and children all gathered around a vibrantly colored theatre stage. The house was refreshingly packed with a continuum of generations, waiting to see a local production of Arabia’s most popular story. After Anthony Tassa, the director of the production, finished his warm greetings and introduced the production we were about to witness, the rotunda instantly dimmed - signaling the start of The Arabian Nights and our attentiveness. After watching, I enjoyed three aspects this particular production had to offer: the vivacious performances by a lovely ensemble, the setting, and, of course, the music!
Director Tassa had assembled a talented cast; with all 17 members always present onstage and often doubling as different characters, singers, and dancers. The story is well-known to many: King Shahryar (Julian Hedlund-Drumm) learns that his wife has been disloyal to him, and so, fully of fury, ensues to marry a different virgin everyday - only to kill her at night. When Shahryar’s assistant tells him there are no women left for him to marry, the king demands that his assistant give him his own daughter, Scheherazade (Sura Azzam), 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. A sucker for mind-twisters, he’s meant to lose himself in Scheherazade’s web of fantasy, and so are we, as the company of 17 robed, turbaned, and ornamented actors take on the identities of their characters to reveal to the king fables over 1,001 nights. Time after time, a character in one of the stories breaks in with the narration of one of his or her own tales, and as a result, we as an audience dive even deeper into the whirly world of words Scheherazade has created.
The production opens up with Shahryar strangling his first, disloyal wife to death. Not too funny for the little ones. These stories comprise violence, disloyalty, and pretentiousness. However, the comic appeal of a good passage of gas is universal. This show is funny and the huge AUS cast is just wonderful. With each new story that Scheherazade narrates, the company of actors brings it to life. Every actor plays multiple roles – some solemn, sad, and romantic – but many of them are worthy of your dose of pleasantry. As spectators, we like these characters. We want them to live, find true love, and live contently. That is the beauty of this production. As human beings, our stories are essentially the same. We cry when our hearts are broken; we laugh when someone cuts the cheese; and we submit too often to temptation. However, the silver lining here is that we sometimes we do the right thing. Therefore, that is what makes life worth celebrating and sharing. Just like this charming AUS production.
The Fichandler styled stage is the ideal environment for such a physical theater production, allowing the actors to dance, sing, clown, and mime with ease. In this AUS production, we are treated to a colorful, compelling show. The scenic design by Ted Rhyner is a lush swirl of carpets, silky drapes, tasseled pillows, lowered lanterns, and all the accessories of Shahryar’s glamorous palace. The costumes by Layla al-Sawan and Omar Hamouda are lavish and clever – designed to help the large cast play multiple roles.
Now, on to the music. The play encompassed three musical pieces composed by Dr Amer El-Didi and performed by the talented AUS’ choir under the conduction of Cari Earnhart. The line-up of music included Hkayet Hob Arabiya (Arabian love stories), Saala Qalbi (the prayers of my heart), and Bayni w Baynak (Between you and I). All three pieces were beautifully sung in Arabic. The live performances gave us a taste of airs mesmerizingly colored and ornamented with a series of instruments. The oud, particularly, gave me the chills. The soloist, who stupendously sang without the accompaniment of instruments or the choir, also astonished me. I had only wished the pamphlet that was given out to the theatergoers singled-out her name to properly acknowledge her in this review. In addition, I commend how the musical pieces coincided with the stories that were being told. For example, Aziz’s story, Bayni w Baynak perfectly encapsulated the angst and agony of the king’s heart.
In this local production of the popular The Arabian Nights, there were so many laugh out loud moments, and many heart-wrenching ones, too. Director Tassa delivers a highly polished production that is full of style and substance. He has used talents to create a fully immersive production, in which the audience and cast can lose themselves completely in the adapted play. As the sprawling carpet and lush drapery dominate an otherwise simple stage, it truly transported the audience from Shahryar’s palace to exceptional locales that are imagined simply through performance and the power of words. Bravo!
Nahla Elsubeihi is a Libyan student at AUS. She majors in English Language and is in her final year. Upon graduating, she plans to amplify her knowledge and expand her career options by pursuing a higher degree in Linguistics. She is specifically interested in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. She is committed to pursue a career in the world of academia and pedagogy. Nahla is a voracious reader, an intersectional feminist, and her favorite movie catchphrase is “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”