Q: SU Drama's Arabian Nights?
A: 'Ensemble-based Physical Theater,' said Director Stephen Cross
By Barbara Haas
In the recent production of Arabian Nights by Syracuse University Drama, a pastry cook has an amorous tryst with a woman of easy virtue.
How are the actors to portray that moment on stage? In the SU Drama production, as the lady writhes with pleasure, the pastry cook passes his rolling pin across her prostrate body as if she were an oversized hunk of pie dough. This action, which occupied maybe 30 seconds, was one of many hundreds of choices that Director Stephen Cross and his actors had to make in their enactment of Mary Zimmerman's retelling of Scheherazade's thousand and one tales.
Throughout the play, the entire cast of 16 took part in telling the tales. As a young man describes how he's been tricked into marrying a "nauseating compendium of disgust," a whole chorus of actors portray each of his bride's hideously ugly features. Two lovers, kept apart by their families, stand on the shoulders of their relatives as they try to converse with one another. The only one who doesn't take part in acting out the tales is Scheherazade herself, who watches the transformative power of her tales on the Shahyar. All the others are active participants.
Director Cross, who teaches movement and acting in the Department of Drama, was trained at the Dell'Arte School of Ensemble-Based Physical Theatre. That's a long name for a theater school, but every word has significance. The Italian Theatre Dell'Arte tradition is a popular theater that goes all the way back to Roman times. In those plays the quick-thinking actors improvised freely, often thinking out the plots on the spur of the moment. In a truly ensemble-based production today, each member of the cast is an actor/creator, working with all the others as part of a team to both create and tell the story. The productions, depending more on expressive body movement than words, often incorporate mime, dance and acrobatics.