The mysterious visitor appears from the desert like a mirage come to life. She is named Sympathy the Learned, the most educated person in the world, and she's come here to the court of the king to prove it. Ask me any question, she says to the wisest men in the kingdom. One of these skeptical men hopes to trip her up with this: "What are the 17 branches of Islam?"
She knows the answer, of course, answering the question confidently and briskly. Brianne Vogt, as Sympathy, is great in the role. But the best part for me about this moment in Fresno State's sweet and gracefully staged production of "Arabian Nights," which continues through Saturday at the John Wright Theatre, is the reaction of the ensemble cast members seated at her feet.
With each of the 17 answers to the question, the other actors, sitting cross-legged at attention, twist their upraised hands back and forth, almost as if they're belly dancers with clackers counting off each correct response. There's something nuanced and subtle about these gestures -- mere slivers of movement in a show bursting with carefully conceived motion -- that adds a precious zing to the scene. It's wonderful.
I felt that way through much of this deft and pleasing show, which under the direction of Ruth Griffin achieves a lively elegance. Playwright Mary Zimmerman, who in 1994 on Broadway adapted the well-known "One Thousand One Nights" story structure by using some of the lesser-known tales, is known for the intense physicality of her adaptations. Griffin, who also choreographed the show, obliges. Her actors dance, tumble, tiptoe, stomp and roll, turning Jeff Hunter's gorgeous set into a sort of romper room of Islamic culture. And the look of the show -- from Elizabeth Payne and Heather Sisk's gorgeous period costumes to Madi Spate's nuanced lighting -- complements the subject matter.
As any fan of "Arabian Nights" knows, it's all about the stories. The cruel king, Shahryar (played by a stellar Myles Bullock), takes a new virgin bride each evening, then has her put to death the next morning. That is, until the resourceful Scheherezade (a precise and multifaceted Kia Vassiliades) finds herself as the newest queen. She tells the king a story, and he is so entranced he spares her life. Each night, the pattern repeats itself.
The stories themselves range from the truly silly (the most embarrassing bout of flatulence ever) to moralistic. They seem to spiral into each other, and sometimes you find yourself in a story within a story. In most, a king named Harun al-Rashid, played by an impressive Ryan Woods, is prominent. (It's fun to see Bullock and Woods, the two recent national finalists at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, on stage together.)
The play is truly an ensemble piece, with all 16 actors on stage through the entire show. Characters can shift in a flash. A talented ensemble member such as Kevin Grow is Scheherezade's father in one scene, then an Old Boatman later. Or there's Dane Oliver, first a jester, then a sage. Along with Griffin's magical movements, the sturdiness of the show rests on the strength of the ensemble, which extends through to every player. I almost feel like I can't single any of those ensemble members out because all are so capable, but my favorites include Aubrianne Scott as the Jester's Wife, Aaron J. McGee as Jafar, Mitchell Lam Hau as Ala al-Din Shamat and Joel Young as the Madman.
Through it all, clever staging gives visual pep to the show. A group of actors becomes a camel. Two men form a swinging door. Hunter's stage, covered in Oriental rugs and boasting a skyline of Baghdad in silhouette, is raked at a downward angle, approximating an open book, and the bold diagonals and circular shapes of bodies on that stage are all all part of the feeling that every motion is part of an overall design.
John Martin III's percussive music, augmented by Maria Cazarez's clarinet, adds another texture to the proceedings.
The play does feel too long, particularly in the second act. And the political message, which comes at the very end -- a nod to the bombing of Baghdad -- seems tacked on and underplayed.
But in temperament and effect, "Arabian Nights" has an ethereal, touching quality, not unlike being treated to a bedtime story. Beautiful to behold, you wouldn't really call it a play with dancing. More like a play that dances.
"The Arabian Nights," through Saturday (May 11), John Wright Theatre, Fresno State. (559) 278-2216. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.