FORUM: Where did 1001 go wrong?posted on May 5th, 2010 by Ally Blumenfeld
“Everything we do, it’s like it’s not us doing it, like we’re trapped in this grand narrative. And it’s like, maybe we’re trying to defy that narrative, or reinvent it, and I can’t…”
Jason Grote’s 1001 sometimes speaks for itself, and that isn’t always a good thing.
This relatively new piece by the MSU alum [sort of] chronicles the relationship between Alan, a Jewish New Yorker, and Dahna, a young Arab woman, through the legendary story of King Shahriyar and his wife, Scheherezade. It sounds like a fantastic idea, and it is. However, through arguably little fault of this particular production, cast, or direction, 1001’s multiple nonlinear narratives end up much like dance choreography: spinning in circles, dancing completely around what I’m sure was supposed to be a point. It is obvious that Grote had much ambition in penning this layered, sometimes moving, cross-cultural, post-9/11 dramatic comedy. He toys with convention, which is almost always a good thing. He creates vivid worlds, so different in texture and aesthetics that it is almost impossible to see them all interconnect, and when they do, it’s wonderful.
This production, the B.A. Theatre Studies Senior Show, did the best it could with an at-times, contrived script. The set was astonishingly innovative: three cubes, small worlds in and of themselves, floated across the stage between scenes, creating the perfect timeless, boundless effect of the play’s vision. The acting was incredible: Whitney Shields, versatile and impressive, absolutely shone as the show’s strongest lead; her co-star Joe Calafiore offered an enjoyable performance, though sometimes struggled to keep up with powerful Shields; and the supporting cast was strong, especially with gems such as Katie McGhee and Caitlin Gutches. Overall, a terrific effort to make sense of a quite involved work. The director attempted to create lucidity in a muddled narrative, and great performers tried to breathe life into some of the more trite dialogue that seeped in, whenever a scene stayed too long in one time period.
So where did 1001 go wrong? In post-show conversations with fellow theater-goers, there seemed to be a resounding consensus of “what?” Some, after giving up trying to “get it,” let themselves “get lost” in the loosely spun tales. Yet there’s a fine line between getting lost in a work … and just being lost. And after all, aren’t we supposed to “get” a play? Even if one hundred different meanings emerge from a single show, isn’t that the point of theater? Unfortunately — and surprisingly — it was hard to glean very many meanings from 1001. Perhaps it would have been better to see an entire production focused primarily and more clearly on the two mirroring, pseudo-love stories instead of fogging up the narrative with (at points) unnecessary and counterproductive extras. I do not mean that the play should have been dumbed down; I mean that succinctness is not always a bad thing in theater. A playwright can take a recycled story such as The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights and render it original with the right craftsmanship. It is when a playwright begins with the need to be original and subsequently tries to fit the familiar in, the audience is often left less than bedazzled.
The script of 1001 makes an attempt at innovation, and succeeds in many ways. Yet when the script is enfleshed onstage, said innovation often results in little more than confusion. In 1001, Grote offers a dynamic vision complete with layers of stories all sharing the theme of storytelling. In this regard, this production of 1001 carried out his vision to create a true spectacle of brilliant sets, colorful costumes, and thoughtful actors, all subject to a certain finesse typical of director Debbie Saivetz (who last directed the remarkable MSU production of Molière). At points, however, it truly felt like we were stuck inside a grand narrative without the ability to make sense of it. Perhaps this was the point. Perhaps such a layered show requires more than one viewing; Grote seems to expect a lot from his audience. Or, perhaps in trying to reinvent this grand narrative, 1001 simply falls short.
Ally Blumenfeld is an undergraduate student in Neil Baldwin’s Play/Script Interpretation Class. This article is posted in collaboration with the Creative Research Center’s initiative to showcase exemplary student writing.