Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Baghdad By the Bay, Part II: "1001" at Just Theater

It seems I'm making a habit of traveling to Berkeley to see intriguing theater based on The Arabian Nights. Last year, it was Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights at Berkeley Rep (one of the best theatergoing experiences I've had in the Bay Area), and a few weeks ago, it was Jason Grote's play 1001, produced by Just Theater at the Berkeley City Club.

I'd been curious to see 1001 for a while now--I met Grote a few summers ago at Portland Center Stage, and 1001 seems to be his "signature" and most frequently produced play.

What I was most struck by is how dense a play it is--and I mean that in a good way. It's an intermissionless 90 minutes, but feels longer (and again, I mean that as a compliment) because it is so full of characters and stories and stories-within-stories and whiplashes of mood and perspective. The two most important threads of the play are the traditional story of Scheharazade and King Shahryar, and a contemporary story about a Palestinian-American woman dating a Jewish-American man. But there are many, many flourishes and frills along the way. At one point, Scheharazade starts recounting a story that bears a suspicious resemblance to Hitchcock's Vertigo--I am still not sure why this is in the play, apart from the fact that it's hilarious, particularly for San Francisco audiences who know Vertigo by heart! (Though perhaps it also underlines themes of the play like doubling, duplicity, and the human need to live life according to a romantic narrative?)

Still, among all the crazy and somewhat postmodern touches (a king with a penchant for malapropisms, interludes with Flaubert and Borges, a dance party where the centuries seem to blur before your eyes), the contemporary story about Dahna and Alan manages to capture some things about the current geopolitical situation, and post-9/11 attitudes and fears, that I have rarely seen theater attempt to capture. If 1001 were only about a love story between a Palestinian and a Jew, it would run the risk of becoming an "issue play." But as one thread in the carpet that Grote is weaving--or one volume in the Library of Babel that he is assembling--it works wonderfully. It grounds the play in the real world, while allowing ample scope for fantasy and the seductions of storytelling to play out.

1001 plays four more performances at the Berkeley City Club; for info and tickets, go to

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