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University Theatre's The Arabian Nights offers insight

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Though Ala al-Din (aka Aladdin) appears briefly in University Theatre's production of The Arabian Nights, the tales adapted from the classic work are more ribald than anything you'd find in a Disney film. There's castration, multiple infidelities and an entire story revolving around an enormous fart.

Mary Zimmerman's adaptation, directed by Allison Bergman, takes its structure from the original stories, with tales-within-tales (and sometimes within-tales-within-tales) structured around the conceit of Scheherezade (Allison Hedges) weaving stories for a thousand and one nights to delay her execution by her husband Shahryar (Nick Tran). Unlike Scheherezade, however, the production's ambition sometimes exceeds its accomplishment.

The costumes, designed by Laura Parker, are superlative, as is Jayme Mellema's scenery, draped in silken curtains and accented with low lighting. Even if the Arab characters are played by students who are noticeably not Arab, there's an atmospheric, even sensual quality to the world they inhabit.

There are also some intriguing choices in the tales presented. "Sympathy the Learned," about an intelligent girl (Katisha Sargeant) schooling the wise men of a king (Stephen Dozier, who plays multiple king/ sheikh roles in the production and does a good job with all of them), plays well as a mini-lesson in the tenants of the Islamic faith, with a brief explanation of the justification for holy war. "The Jester's Tale," meanwhile, presents several stories within its story, the framing tale of a wife hiding her lovers a sly look at the saucier side of folktales.

Other choices don't work as well. The strategy of overlapping dialogue between Scheherezade and the characters in her stories to illustrate the tales being acted out sometimes backfires, distracting from the tales being woven. The problem is especially pronounced in the climax, which attempts to depict the passage of time by having several tales acted out at the same time on different parts of the stage. (Until I checked the credits, I was unaware that the tale of Aladdin had been part of the show, as it was on stage left, while I was seated near stage right.)

This production sometimes feels like NCSU students just playing dress-up, but there are moments when it offers some real insight into the original Arabian Nights. It's darker and more complicated material than what Disney has led us to expect—but at times, it's also more intriguing.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Four nights of Raleigh tales."

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