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Theatre Review (Singapore): Arabian Nights by The Open Stage

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Amateur theatre group The Open Stage’s annual play this year was Arabian Nights, which ran at the DBS Arts Centre from the 3rd to 5th August 2012.

Written by Tony-winning playwright Mary Zimmerman, Arabian Nights tells the story of Caliph Shahryar (Musa Fazal) who, cheated on by his first wife, decides to wed, bed, and then kill a long line of virgins. Enter Scheherezade (Tania Mukherjee) an intelligent and witty woman who’s earmarked by Shahryar to meet her death the same way.

However, Scheherezade is a gifted story teller and by enticing the Caliph with her stories, and then terminating the stories halfway that night, only to continue the next night, and always making sure to start another story right after – Scheherezade manages to buy an extra day of life with each story as the Caliph’s anticipation at hearing the ending of each story makes him spare her for a day each time. By the end, the Caliph finds himself a different man, and one who’s drawn to the beautiful Scheherezade instead and so he decides to spare her life.

Based on the collection of Middle Eastern and South East Asian short stories known as Arabian Nights aka One Thousand and One Nights (a reference to the number of nights Scheherezade spent telling stories to save her life), this play version showcases a handful of these stories, and some are even stories within stories.

My gripe is with the script itself and the stories Zimmerman chose to incorporate in her version: – while the ones that were lightheartedly slapstick in nature worked on some level, most of the stories seemed rather frothy and innocuous and as a result seemed inconsequential and trivial. At most points, I felt the stories, even if in the form of comedic content, needed more gravitas in order to be relevant to the audience.

Also, as much as Arabian Nights (book and play) has fantastical aspects, the ending which had the Caliph Shahryar falling in love with Scheherezade, and more bizarrely Scheherezade falling for the murderous Caliph, felt implausible and unsound.

The Open Stage is an amalgamation of professional and amateur actors, and hence there was an awkward inconsistency with the acting. While some of the actors struggled with diction and enunciation, and even with stage presence and energy, others performed with more ease and conviction. Two actors who stood out were Prem John and Hemang Yadav, who played multiple characters, bringing a myriad of expressions, nuance and believability into their respective portrayals.

The set was bare, aside from two seating areas and a structure upstage. Hence most of the stories were told through dialogue and gestures, and given that the stories Zimmernman has in her play lack excitement for the most part, Open Stage should have chosen a play that better supported its structure and strength. A play that has more interesting dialogue and plot would’ve been a better fit for this group.

Having said that though, it is really admirable that such an amateur theatrical group like The Open Stage exists in Singapore. Made up of professionals who have otherwise full-time work elsewhere, this group meets once a year to stage a play – all in the name of passion for theatre. It is highly commendable that whether it’s a calling to portray a character, or to stage a new play, the members of The Open Stage are able to tap into their inherent love of theatre and bring that passion to fruition by successfully staging annual plays since 2007.

Truth is, we have enough professional theatrical groups in Singapore, what we need is more of such daring amateur play groups such as The Open Stage who aren’t afraid of staging a play for the simple reason that they love doing it.

In a city where putting up any kind of show is expensive, difficult, without support and exclusive, it is praiseworthy indeed that this play group has made their theatrical dreams come true every year. To this, I say,-  Bravo The Open Stage, Bravo!

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.