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THEATER REVIEWS : Puppets Little Help for 'Arabian Nights'

October 05, 1994|SCOTT COLLINS

In "Shahrazad & the Arabian Nights," one character dismisses the classic story collection as "a Western book that corrupts people's minds," and then quickly adds, "I love it."

Such ambivalence is the key to this spinoff by the Kanaaqeel Theater Company in Santa Monica of "The 1001 Nights"--it is more deconstruction than adaptation of the famous text.

Creators Ismael Kanater and Tamadhur Al-Aqeel obviously admire the tales' strong sense of enchantment, which they try to enhance with masks, dance and shadow puppets. Yet, distrusting the book's integrity as a Middle Eastern artifact, perhaps rightly, they recast the narrative as a complicated tale-within-a-tale with an awkward political moral.

The result is a muddled evening at Powerhouse Theatre of too much telling and not enough showing.

Kanater, who also directed, plays a prisoner who tries to avoid torture by telling stories to his sadistic captor (Jamie Hanes). The prisoner's plight mirrors that of Shahrazad (Al-Aqeel), the crafty princess who deferred her own execution by spinning tales for an evil king.

The company uses shadow puppets to act out two of these tales, a fable about a hunchback and a bawdy story about a porter and three girls. Puppets can be a fascinating mode of presentation, but in this case the novelty quickly wears off. The puppeteers (Linda Campanella Jauron and Lynn Jeffries) fumble visibly behind a white scrim, each botched quick-change complicating the viewer's suspension of disbelief.

Yet here, the original stories are almost beside the point. More important is the notion of the storyteller as politically oppressed artiste , a point hammered home in the long-winded prison scenes that bog down the play's second half.

This approach would be easier to take if the show made a richer connection between politics and art--or chose tales with political undertones. But, as it is, the link between repression and art feels forced and artificial, especially when the play ends with a rather curious appeal on behalf of the "storytellers" of Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and other world hot spots.

"Shahrazad" would have done well to borrow a cue from its legendary namesake: To enthrall your audience, tell a good story.

* "Shahrazad & the Arabian Nights," Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 30. (213) 876-6134. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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