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Trinity Square Ensemble

at the Raven Theatre

My dad used to tell great bedtime stories. His favorite was Rikki-tikki-tavi. He could do a great mongoose. When Nagina the snake and Rikki the mongoose fought to the death, I could hardly breathe.

So I can really identify with the sultan in The Arabian Nights who spares his wife Scheherazade from death, night after night, just so he can hear her finish another story. And oh, what stories that woman told–full of genies and sultans, clever slaves and stupid masters, moral instruction and (knowing her audience) lots of sex.

So the Trinity Square Ensemble had a good thing going for them when they chose an adaptation of The Arabian Nights to open a season “based on the theme of how mysticism, spiritualism, and superstition affect our daily lives.” At best the show would combine the archetypal theatricality of an old favorite bedtime story with the sensuality and exotic wonder of Arabia. It didn’t quite work, though. Instead of weaving us tales with the beauty and intricacy of a Persian rug, Trinity Square Ensemble ends up just spinning a few good yarns.

Trinity Square’s Arabian Nights is done in conventional story theater form. Each episode begins with someone, usually Scheherazade (Karen L. Erickson), telling the story. Gradually actors take over the stage, and the narrator disappears or becomes incorporated into the story.

The play begins and ends with the telling of Scheherazade’s own adventures. A taped voice-over starts with a “once upon a time” narration complete with Family Classic-style music.

It’s this Family Classic atmosphere that is the downfall of the show. Arabian Nights is billed as “adult entertainment,” and there is a fair amount of sex in the stories, but the treatment of it is more reminiscent of Frankie and Annette at the beach than of hot desert nights.

Part of the problem is the stories that were chosen. Each member of the ensemble chose a story he or she wanted to do, and the whole lot were worked into Scheherazade’s adventure. This particular ensemble really likes the trickster tales–the old slapstick “how will they get out of this mess” stuff. Director Marge Uhlarik has some interesting staging ideas, but in the long run, the show bogs down in the sameness of the tales–all but one of them based on quick wits and sticky situations.

For instance, there’s the story of a queen (Brigid O’Connor) who catches her slave laughing at her. The clever slave (Margaret Kale) explains that she was actually thinking of a famous clown, whereupon the queen orders her to produce him. If he can make her laugh, he will get gold. If he cannot, he will get a beating. The slave scours the audience for a clown, gleefully insulting audience members who don’t measure up. Finally she uses her feminine charms to coax a performance out of Philip Johnson, who not only can juggle, but does an astounding gorilla.

My favorite was the story of the lusty slave (Johnson) who is asked to deliver a love letter for his master (Edward Erickson) and ends up scoring himself. When the woman’s husband (John Carroll Lynch) comes home and finds two men hiding in his house, everything’s up for grabs.

Yes, the stories are fun. But there is so much more to The Arabian Nights that is not explored. The one exception the ensemble portrays is the story of a woman who gets her hands cut off for illegally giving bread to a poor man. It is done completely as a dance, with the actual story on tape over the music. It is a highlight of the show, just because it’s something different.

The actors themselves reflect this sameness. They do seem to be having a good time, and through their interaction with us, they become our friends. But they all have the same Wonder Bread style, totally devoid of the rich sensuality of the Arabian culture.

Philip Johnson is a welcome exception. He has just the right sybaritic quality, impishly reveling in his actions. He is a treat to watch, whether stuffing lettuce into his gorilla mouth, mimicking his master behind his back, or crawling on his belly toward an unsuspecting delicious female. Johnson relishes his moments onstage. And the audience does too.

While the actors don’t help, the designers deserve much of the blame for the amateurish quality of the production. Set designers David G. Rice and Michael Wexler have swathed the stage in cheap fabric that looks like it’s been hastily stapled to the wall. Lighting could probably have made this drapery idea work, but any sense of the exotic is completely overwhelmed by Kerin Hagan’s too-bright lights. Hagan does have some evocative special effects that bathe the stage in mystery, but such moments are rare. Barbara Harris followed suit with her unflattering costume designs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen L. Erickson.