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Jason Grote's new play about the power of storytelling is undercut by its self-referential humor. logo
Jeanine Serralles and Josh Philip Weinstein
in 1001
(© Terry Shapiro)
Throughout the world premiere of Jason Grote's 1001, now at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, stories spin madly through time and space. The play's primary settings are old Persia and New York, with the first 40 minutes given to a retelling of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and the second half devoted to a modern-day New York City romance between Alan, who's Jewish, and Dahna, who's an Arab.

Grote makes a powerful point about the power of stories, and the implicit charge to recognize that we each tell our own narrative to either imprison or liberate us. Unfortunately, though, too much of the play's humor is mined from a self-referential mocking of second-rate theater, from stumbling over lines to the sloppily exaggerated conventions of the stage, that undercuts Grote's message.

The Persian section focuses on the famous tale of King Shahriyar, who, after his first wife betrayed him, loses himself in a cycle of wedding a virgin a day, deflowering her that night, and decapitating her in the morning before she has a chance at betrayal. So the storyteller Scheherazade (Lanna Joffrey) embarks on a plan to save the women of the kingdom by marrying Shahriyar, beginning a tale on her wedding night and keeping the king so captivated by its telling and the myriad tales entangled within that he will spare her life to keep the stories spinning.

Here, Shahriyar is not the sharpest of kings. His preeminent character trait is his awkwardly exaggerated habit of tripping over words -- saying Alan instead of Allah, pringle instead of king, genital and then gentile instead of gentle. The overuse of this device sets a low standard for an audience not yet confident of the characters on the stage. Fortunately, Shahriyar begins to change with the arrival of Scheherazade, a storyteller who fills his empty imagination with the words he has been searching for; at the same moment, the performance of Josh Phillip Weinstein as the King also begins to change for the better. Shahriyar, who is entranced by the huge tome that Scheherazade holds, is clearly more in his element as a listener than as the center of his own story -- a phrase that also applies to Weinstein.

The play's best device is the transformation of Scheherazade's hefty tome into a laptop shared by Alan and Dahna (also played by Weinstein and Joffrey) with the book's cover opened up like a flip-up screen. Grote deftly underscores the journey that "story" has taken to its incarnation as "virtual reality," as Alan is entranced by the laptop's looking glass nature, passively immersing himself in the sea of stories available to him. Dahna also echoes the refuge Scheherazade finds in story, actively implementing the 21st-century tool as a means for change, finding romance in an ironic instant message affair as she falls in love with the words scrolling along on a projection screen as the "chat" unfurls.

Director Ethan McSweeny has staged the play in the round, with bare bones sets, costume fragments, and a cast of six inhabiting 28 roles, all reflecting the recurring motifs in characters skipping across time. The production elements add to the conspiratorial tone between winking actors and an audience eagerly accepting an invitation to revel in the inside jokes.

But Grote's approach proves risky, devoting so much time early in the play to finding knee-jerk jokes in malapropisms and anachronism. Furthermore, the laughs are almost too easy, settling for least-common-denominator references in the midst of the play's higher aspirations.

Ultimately, however, the audience's trust in the power of the storyteller is rewarded, although those expecting to leave with deep political or cultural truths in hand will need to continue the quest on their own. Nevertheless, 1001 reminds us that in story we can find refuge, the catalyst for change, and the companionship -- welcome or not -- of a collective unconscious. "Every time we talk, or every time we touch each other, it's like it's not just us doing it," Dahna tells Alan, trying to make sense of the baggage of 1001 stories swirling around each action. "It's like it's fraught with everything we do. We're trapped in this grand narrative. Maybe we're trying to defy that narrative, or reinvent it."

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