Scheherazade is the story of two sisters with a plan. For 1,000 days, Shahriyar, a scorned and sadistic ruler, has been marrying one virgin each night, then killing them the next day. Knowing that the king grants a last wish to his doomed wives, the eponymous girl volunteers to be a bride and asks to tell her younger sister one last story. Blessed with the gift of spinning a good tale, she tells her story so well that when it isn’t finished by sunrise, she is granted another day of life in order to wrap it up. And another. And another. When three years pass and the story is not yet complete, let’s just say it gets complicated.
Johnnie Walker has written a play that turns this ancient One Thousand and One Nights tale into a fun-filled, finely crafted (if not family-friendly) show. The 90 minutes fly by in the capable hands of a large cast that serves up a master class in ensemble work while shining in their individual roles. The performances are big and bold but anchored in a combined will to serve the story. Heather Marie Annis sparkles in her subtle and sweet way as the young Dunyazade. Steven McCarthy’s boundless energy, paired with an unwavering commitment to being filthy, gets the audience howling. Kat Letwin also stands out in her various roles, pushing the boundaries of ridiculousness in her pursuit of a laugh. Thankfully, there’s Lindsey Clark, whose grounded performance keeps the whimsy from getting too wacky.
The real star of the show, however, is Morgan Norwich, whose seamless direction is sexy as hell. So slick is the skillful switching of scenes that you could almost forget you are at times watching a story within a story within a story.
Of course, the play can be only as good as the script, and Walker doesn’t disappoint. He is undoubtedly talented at structuring and telling a story and provided some great material for this gifted group. At times, however, the play stumbles from quick transitions in style, going from heightened to hyper-realistic, causing moments of turbulence in an otherwise smooth ride. It’s not clear whether these moments are intentionally placed to inspire a check-in about the play’s themes of sexual violence and exploitation, which could be a powerful mechanism if more fully realized. For now, it causes one to wonder what the real message is behind this Westernized update of a Persian tale. And the answer is not entirely clear.
Despite these moments of theoretical pondering (over-thinking perhaps?), Sheherazade is a funny, engrossing and well-executed night of story telling. Just maybe don’t bring your parents. It’s pretty dirty.