Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: Strindberg: A Monkey, A Miser and Two Lovebirds Walk Into a Forest

By Ed Malin

In 1906, Strindberg wrote a humorous fable, in uncounted iambic verse, appropriate for children.  Leave it to Strindberg Rep to present Abu Casem’s Slippers as part of their ongoing mission to produce all of the Number One Swede’s theatrical legacy.  Janet Bentley directs an ensemble of eight, who tackle fifteen roles in the busy world of Baghdad under Caliph Haroun al-Rashid (see: The Arabian Nights, 401-402).   Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey’s modern translation is delightful. Strindberg, who may have been falling in love at the time he wrote this piece, delivers a charming, colorful story about human kindness, in which he weaves extensions from French fairy tales into the world of Baghdad, then the largest city in the world, a metropolis with a Persian name, run by an Arabian dynasty.
photo by Jonathan Slaff
Abu Casem (Mary Tierney) is a wealthy, stingy merchant who apparently loves nothing but money and beards. The glorious Caliph Haroun al-Rashid himself (Pooya Mohseni) decides to test Abu Casem’s true character by leaving an old pair of slippers in the marketplace, which Abu Casem finds and is pleased to wear.  Abu Casem spends his days price-gouging, causing the ruin of merchant Ahmed (Oliver Conant), who bids adieu to his son Solimon (John Cencio Burgos) and leaves to make his way in the world.  Meanwhile, Abu Casem rejoices in his fortune by going to the bath, at which point a cheeky Monkey (Laksh Midha) swaps his old-new slippers with those of the Cadi, a.k.a the grand poo-bah of the constabulary (Oliver Conant).  Abu Casem rejoices at his even newer slippers, but is later accused of theft and suffers.  He then tries to throw the accursed footwear into the water, bury them, etc. but each time the old slippers come back to him and he is punished.  Abu Casem has a beautiful daughter, Suleika (Jaya Tripathi) who has sworn off marriage.  She is loved from afar by Prince Guri (Marcos Sotomayor), whose waist is narrow as the almond branch, his eyes limpid as a young gazelle’s. However, Suleika’s angelic sleep has been defiled by dreams of treacherous lovers.  Prince Guri pines in a pavilion, but soon he is wining and dining Suleika thanks to a clever ruse from Solimon (who sings the blues), kindly shoemaker Hassan (Kevin Vavasseur), the Nurse (Pooya Mohseni), and of course that slipper-struck simian.  Speaking of watching from afar, Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, paragon of whom we are all unworthy, is also watching the action and is ready to administer justice.  Why is the entire cast including merchant Ahmed dancing at the end?  You will have to ask choreographer Kate Ostrowski, or just come to this fine spectacle.
What a joy has been brought to us from Baghdad via Stockholm.  You-Shin Chen’s sets pitch us headlong onto the banks of the Tigris, into a fabulous forest, and into pleasurable places where fountains can be found.  Jessa-Raye Court’s costumes are a sumptuous rainbow of tall hats, crazy kaftans and delightful monkey faces.  I should also mention the beards which female cast members wear so well that my seven year-old daughter was fooled.  Like a lucky drachma, you will find Lucky Pearto’s lighting and rejoice. Andy Evan Cohen brings dumbek, oud and other trancey instruments together to create one heck of a hammam soundtrack.  Janet Bentley keeps this pageant moving as fast as the arrow of love flies and the monkey dances, which is to say very nicely indeed.