The magical stories of Scheherazade’s 1,001 “Arabian Nights’’ come to life with the simple combination of a storyteller’s hypnotic voice, a richly colored backdrop, and some extraordinarily dexterous performances in the Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater’s first coproduction at their Central Square Theatre home.
Adapter Dominic Cooke selects just five stories, ranging from the familiar (“Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’’) to the more obscure (“How Abu Hassan Broke Wind’’) for a mix of tales that seem exotic at first but soon reveal familiar themes of jealousy, greed, bitterness, love, longing, and loss.
The success of this production begins with designer David Fichter’s spare but lushly colored scenic design, which consists of a stage painted in vividly colored tapestry patterns that spiral out from a central circle, and a screen at the back of the stage area draped with abstractly colored curtains that allow for shadow puppets to appear behind them.
Fichter’s design creates an enchanting foundation for the audience’s imagination to take flight, enhanced by Karen Perlow’s moody lighting, Leslie Held’s shimmery, sparkly costumes that also occasionally double as set pieces, and a collection of simple props that look like pillows, bolsters, and bean bag chairs but transform into firewood, a magical bird egg, and piles of gold, among other things.
Director Daniel Gidron understands how to combine playful performances with precise timing, giving his ensemble room to develop characters that are distinctly their own, while also serving the enchanting stories.
With just nine performers, Cooke’s adaptation begins with a storyteller providing narration (the sonorous voiced Evelyn Howe), and then moves seamlessly into dialogue, animal noises, even the sound of the thieves’ cave opening and closing.
In addition to Howe, Gidron’s cast includes the chameleon-like Ramona Lisa Alexander; Vincent E. Siders, who delivers a murderous, black-hearted king with surprising nuance and vulnerability; and Paige Clark, Alexander Cook, Elbert Joseph, Ahmad Maksoud, Ibrahim Miari, and Debra Wise, all of whom morph easily from merchants and tailors to mules and ghouls.
Gidron makes all of these transitions flow smoothly and, along with Judith Chaffee’s evocative movements, creates the effect of a series of spells being cast as each story unfolds. The enchanted atmosphere is amplified by selective use of a few magnificent puppets and American Sign Language, all of which defies expectations and creates an ever-evolving sense of surprise and delight.
Everything is crafted with an eye toward unleashing the imagination, and although there are some cartoonish characters in the mix, the humor and pathos of the tales will appeal to adults as well as children.
Throughout these fascinating stories, this irresistible production of “Arabian Nights’’ transports us to another world that reminds us of the power of storytelling, not only to take us outside of ourselves, but to recognize our common humanity.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.