The Story Variations of MARJANA AND THE FORTY THIEVES

Photo by Gaia Squarci

What if it’s one, continuous, ever-evolving story we’ve been telling each other since the dawn of humanity? If that’s true, how many different ways can you tell that story? How does that story morph to reflect the cultural moment? What doesn’t change over time?

Target Margin’s treatment of The One Thousand and One Nights, here called Marjana and The Forty Thieveswhich opened March 28 and runs through April 20 at the Doxsee in Sunset Park, calls upon at least three variations on how to storytell throughout its 90-minute run time. Encased within a habitat created from richly-patterned fabrics, couches, chairs, and cushions (this is the Doxsee at its coziest, half tent and half bazaar, designed by Carolyn Mraz), five actors share the setting of an elaborate backstory for the duration of the first “act”. Using the art of witty paraphrase, the performers (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, Sophie Laruelle, Anthony Vaughn Merchant, Anish Roy, and Isuri Wijesundara) dart in and out of heightened language, often overlapping or repeating a phrase, changing its meaning slightly. There is an efficiency to their sharing – they are all telling one tale, using different bodies and attitudes, yet consistency wins out. They are together here, working in the same direction (the director is David Herskovits), sharing a single microphone that hangs from the ceiling. One of the actors utilizes a totally satisfying side-mic-drop at one point, letting it swing out at the audience and then catching it on its rebound and seamlessly continuing the story.

This period of set-up, essential in placing what will come later (the episode of Ali Baba) in a specific context, also allows the present to speak with the past. The details of the story are brutal – kings killing wives for sleeping with slaves without a second thought, for example. The exterior surface of the story (and the text) is relentlessly male, told almost exclusively from a dominant point of view; through sharing, repeating, layering, and rephrasing, the company finds a way to both underline and subvert the brutality without explicitly pointing at it. This is, after all, a story about how a woman tells a story to stay alive, and to keep other women alive. It’s also a story about how we tell old stories.

A second section breaks the spell, intentionally. Lights come up (Kate McGee’s design, whimsically functional) and the audience partakes in a snack break. Actors drop character and introduce themselves by name. It’s a variation on a moment that frequent theater-goers may have been seeing a lot over the past few years – immersion a la Brecht, a way to pull back the curtain and reveal the machinery while earning authenticity points along the way. Here, it’s pleasant enough, a bit tongue-in-cheek, charming without being too clever. The gist of its narrative impact is the revelation that some of the story being told – or about to be told – has just recently been rediscovered. The import of this is somewhat difficult to grasp. It’s intriguing on an academic level, but most of us are not experts on the existing text, which creates a bit of uncertainty that lingers. Does learning that some part of this story is “new” (while of course actually being very very old) lend it relevancy? Does it matter that we can’t parse what’s changed?

Act Three is performed almost exclusively upstage, turning a round space into a proscenium, utilizing curtains haphazardly to reveal set changes and new characters. Title cards abound. It’s fun, for a while. The sharing of story becomes more fragmented, as now actors embody singular and consistent characters, like Ali Baba, the Leader of the Thieves, or Marjana, whose agency is emphasized in this telling. Sans narrator, the action plays out like a play. It’s almost aggressive in its simplicity – one hesitates to use the word “amateur,” (perhaps “community-accessible” would be kinder) as, especially when in conversation with the sophistication demonstrated in act one, it has to be assumed that its rudimentary nature is intentional. But funny voices and crude characterizations eventually diffuse the evening’s momentum, and flatten out the story’s capacity to engage on multiple levels.

Perhaps one answer to the “why” of the third act might be that it’s intended as a starting point. There are many more stories to be told, the tale of Ali Baba being just the first. In a durational setting, the analog beginning might slowly turn into something more unsettlingly anarchical. In which case, maybe silly is the right place to start. It’s a bit deflating, though, that in this particular evening, it’s where we end.

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