Octavio Solis directs Mary Zimmerman’s “The Arabian Nights” for the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University. It’s a bawdy, lusty play, a labyrinth of stories within stories from one of the oldest cultures in the world.
"The Arabian Nights” is Zimmerman’s re-telling of “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,” a compilation of Middle Eastern folk tales recorded in Arabic over the centuries. Shahryar is deceived by his queen, and he kills her. Crazed by grief and anger, Shahryar takes queen after queen, killing each after their first night together because he fears their betrayal. Then Shahryar weds Shererazade, who tells her husband stories that enchant him, entrance him, and so Shererazade stays her death — and Shahryar is healed of his madness.
Shererazade’s stories reach deep into her king’s heart.
“The stories finally humanize him,” Solis says. “They are in the end moral tales that are humorous, silly, sad and tragic that help him learn the nature of true love.”
"The Arabian Nights” presents adult themes, and performances are at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12; 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, Nov. 15 and 17; 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18; and 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, in the Black Swan Theatre on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival campus, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Tickets are $21, $18 for seniors, and $6 for students and can be purchased at oca.sou.edu/box-office or by caling 541-552-6348.
Octavio Solis is an accomplished and award-winning playwright, and several of his plays have been performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, including “Don Quixote” in 2008. Solis jumped at the opportunity to direct “The Arabian Nights,” he says, because it is an important play for these times when politics and some media outlets seek to polarize and inflame. The play’s universal themes of love and madness, jealousy and longing are common to all mankind throughout the millennia.
"In a time when we’re stereotyping Arabic people and Muslims,” Solis says, “what we’re trying to say is that there’s no difference. We are them.
"Stories teach us empathy, and that’s what we have to learn. We have to learn how to see things from another side. Story teaches us imagination, and when someone’s imagination expands, they learn what empathy really means.”
Seeing “The Arabian Nights” as a play is a very different experience from reading the text: The play bring the stories to life. As a playwright, Solis understands this instinctively.
"The production makes the stories completely three-dimensional, opening up the story book and making them utterly tactile,” he says. “Instead of the voices being imaginary, you hear the voices embodied. You see the characters embodied, as people that literally reach out of the pages and take on life.”
This Oregon Center for the Performing Arts production is a large undertaking, with 16 actors and two musicians, all students. Solis cast some of SOU’s most talented students for “The Arabian Nights,” with Jake Raiter as Shahryar and Sarah Glasgow as Shererazade among them.
"These young actors love it,” Solis says. “They’re young, vital human beings, and this is a play that says tap into that.”
Music fills “The Arabian Nights,” almost all of which is original to this OCA production composed by visiting scholar Fernando Hernandez. Two of the student actors, Carlos-Zenen Trujillo and Eric Solis, composed one of the pieces, performing it on a dulcimer.
Solis brought in Melory Mirashrafi to advise on Persian culture, pronunciation and costumes. Mirashrafi is a first-generation Iranian-American and a theater student at Linfield College. Her work helped the students understand a foreign culture and represent it in respectful ways.
“We needed someone to give us a cultural framework,” Solis says of Mirashrafi’s work.
Thousands of stories were collected over the millennia for “A Thousand and One Nights,” but only a few can be told in a play, and playwright Zimmerman deliberately excluded stories of adventure and war, and killing.
Solis understands Zimmerman’s intent.
“This play focuses on the stories about love, love’s betrayal, carnality, lovemaking and the stories that show more positive images of women.”
Ultimately, “The Arabian Nights” is about the transformative power of stories, and about love, explicit and poetic.
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.