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The Arabian Nights

Take the Naval Academy Masqueraders’ magic carpet ride to ancient Persia and meet merchants, lovers, royalty and travelers

photo by Roger Miller The Tales of the Arabian Nights center on the Khalifah Shahryar, played by James Frevola.

Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights is not your same old Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin story. None of them appears in this 15-story sampling of the bawdy and moralistic tales. But if you take the Naval Academy Masqueraders’ magic carpet ride to ancient Persia, you will meet the masses: merchants, lovers, royalty and travelers.
    The stories center on the Khalifah Shahryar (James Frevola, looking every inch an Arabian prince), a cuckolded bridegroom who seeks revenge on womankind by marrying, bedding and killing a different virgin each night until none are left in his kingdom but his aide’s daughters, the lovely Scheherazade (Kiley Provenzano) and Dunyazade (Gabriela Baez). Together they devise a plot to buy time with suspenseful bedtime stories. The prince is so enthralled that they earn one more night, then another and another …
    Scheherezade begins with The Madman’s Tale, in which a virtuous young man (Wes Cox) is tricked by a temptress of beautiful countenance and voice (Judy Valderrabano) into marrying a hideous freak, then contrives to have the union annulled by inviting a band of maniacal relatives to his in-laws’ home.
    On the second night, Scheherezade continues with The Perfidy of Wives, a tale in five parts, starting with the trials of a cuckolded Jester (Mark Pfender) who discovers his wife’s four lovers in the privy. Each in turn tells a tale.
    Act II bends gender stereotypes with Sympathy the Learned (Jenn Underhill), a woman so knowledgeable she beats each of the king’s wise men in a sort of It’s Academic quiz, thus winning her rivals’ clothes, the respect of men and a marriage proposal from the king (Michael McPherson).
    The Confusion of Stories is a mosaic of fables akin to the wall display in a TV store: an assault on the senses and sensibilities that moves the audience through years of yarns that buy Scheherazade her freedom.
    In the final tale, The Forgotten Melody, Ishak the Musician (Moises Diaz) teaches that music makes life dance. And so it is in this production, full of dancing and music as stirring as the dance of the seven veils, thanks to Foxton’s choreography.
    Masqueraders’ productions are rich in visual detail, and this one is replete with towering sets bedecked in colorful silks, kilims, beads and tassels. The costumes are exquisite and the staging delightful as actors become caravans of camels and flotillas of candlelit boats. My favorite touch is the sound of a dozen djembe drumming rhythms so rousing I expected the audience to get up and dance.
    But the show is a stretch for a student production, as each actor takes on a half-dozen roles. Enthusiasm alone does not convey the unique flavor of each story. Midshipmen and academy insiders, however, laughed heartily at the manipulations of the script for their entertainment. And to their credit, the actors often speak as a chorus in precise diction that was a joy to understand in Mahan Hall’s notorious sound-muffling milieu.
    The Arabian Nights offers a kaleidoscopic view of another place and time we can barely recognize in today’s war zones. I recommend it for mature audiences with a taste for literary classics.

    Director: Christy Stanlake. Technical director: Nicholas Peskosky. Set & costume designer: Richard Montgomery. Choreographer: Heather Foxton. Choral director: Judy Valderrabano.
    Playing thru Nov. 6 at 8pm FSa; 2pm Su at Mahan Hall, Naval Academy, Annapolis. $10 w/discounts: rsvp; 410-293-8497.