The Dueling Critics clash over '1001'

August 5, 2011

Editors’ note: Is Jonathan checking in from vacation in the Southwest, or is Kelly putting words in his mouth as he did to her while she was out of the country? Your guess is as good as ours.  


JONATHAN: Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Kelly. I’m sure you were the one who decided we should review Collaboraction’s remount of its hit show. But when I attend a show called 1001, I expect to see The Arabian Nights as transcribed by Sir Richard Burton. (Not the actor, the explorer. When we roamed Araby together he told me to skip the formality and just call him “Dick.”)  Instead, here’s some sort of postmodern foo-faw-raw which switches back and forth between the central tale of Scheherazade–even you must be familiar with that story as well as the eponymous music by Rimsky-Korsakov (or, as he preferred I call him, “Rim”)–and some sort of encounter set in contemporary New York/London/Gaza between a Palestinian woman and her Jewish boyfriend whom she eventually throws over for someone more acceptable to her parents. Or does she?

KELLY: I don’t know, Jonathan, does she? Your summary of the show makes clear that you missed the entire point, which is that we are all defined by the stories we tell ourselves–whether they’re “I’m a good liberal Jew so I’ll defend the Arab woman in a public forum and that will provide adequate foundation for an enduring love,” or “I’m a modern Arab woman who doesn’t care about ethnic loyalties,” or “I’m a prince who lacks the only power I want, the power to make a woman love me faithfully, so I’m going to despoil and kill every woman I see.” The specifics of the story matter less than the fact that each of us occupies his/her own story and therefore has a hard time communicating with, much less connecting to, everyone else, all equally trapped in their own stories.

JONATHAN: And your story is that you don’t know as much about theater as I do and attempt to conceal it by borrowing terms from a graduate-school English curriculum. What matters in the theater is a story, not the concept of stories; and what really works in this production of New York playwright Jason Grote’s script is the contemporary love affair between Dahna the Arab and Alan the Jew, played with touching innocence by Mouzam Makkar and Joel Gross. Their relationship is the realest thing on the stage, in every sense of real: both naturalistic and genuine.

KELLY: I can’t dispute that; but I think their love affair derives some of its power from the fact that Makkar and Gross also play Scheherazade and the wicked prince Shahriyar. In the Scheherazade sections, it’s clear that stories are being used deliberately to distance and dehumanize the characters; so that when they’re driven apart by their stories in the modern section, it’s all the more moving.  

But you’ve managed to make the show sound conventional, Jonathan, when it’s anything but: its six-member cast plays everyone from Alan Dershowitz to Osama bin Laden, and does a superb low-key mockery of the kind of awestruck approach to classic stories on which Mary Zimmerman has made her reputation. It’s just as physical, just as lively, just as clever; but it’s also funny.

JONATHAN: I’m not sure I enjoy Collaboraction's jazzed-up version of old tales as much as the respectful versions Zimmerman produces; but they’re not actually in the same category at all. This 1001 is frankly trying to tell us about contemporary life–in fact, I thought the title was intended to evoke 2001, as in September 11–while other versions are more concerned with the actual tales of the Arabian Nights.  There’s plenty of room on Chicago stages for both. And here Collaboraction, in the persons of director Seth Bockley and a crackerjack cast and design team, has shown how deserving it is of a portion of that room.

KELLY: “Crackerjack”? Did you get that from Burton, or from Rim the Russian, or are you just stuck in the 1920s? However it’s said, though, I’m compelled to agree: the Collaboraction iteration of The Arabian Nights, like all the company’s shows, is smart, current, technology-rich without losing the human touch, and all in all a pleasure to behold.  

The show continues just through August 28 at the company’s new space upstairs at the Flat Iron Arts Building in Wicker Park. Warning: if it’s hot outside, it will be hot in the theater lobby, which is up a couple of flights of stairs; but the theater itself is pretty comfortable, as well as intimate. Thursday through Sunday plus a couple of extra performances, including this coming Monday (8/8); tickets from $15.

Listen below to a scene from 1001: