Constellation Sparkles In 'Arabian Nights'

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 6, 2007

With its cool, confident staging of Mary Zimmerman's user-friendly "Arabian Nights," Constellation Theatre Company undulates into view as a young troupe to watch.

Director Allison Arkell Stockman's show is extremely well balanced, from the personable ensemble acting of these tales-within-tales to a simple but enveloping design. The entire stage of the Source Theatre -- where Constellation will be a resident company after this winter's renovations -- is covered with Persian carpets, and the air is filled with entrancing Middle Eastern music.

Stockman's company doesn't seem to have a big budget, but it does manage a very nice special effect with composer-percussionist Tom Teasley, who plays the music live from his own niche in A.J. Guban's set. With his unusual array of instruments, his propulsive beats and near-dervish presence, Teasley is practically a show unto himself.

But who can watch him when belly dancers sidle in, ushering one chapter or another of Scheherazade's famously endless yarn into view? Each time the high "cling" of finger cymbals announces a new story beginning, it's hard not to lean forward, the way the fierce but entranced Shahryar does as he delays his habit of beheading wives.

This latest spouse, you'll recall, has Shahryar bewitched. Scheherazade spins her tales hoping to delay the inevitable, and in Zimmerman's telling -- similar in its fluid episodic structure and frisky-somber tone to her Broadway hit "Metamorphoses" -- the fables delight and instruct while steaming toward an unsettling finish.

As Shahryar, the bare-chested John Tweel casts dark looks on the stories that unfold before his eyes and eventually draw him into the action. Katie Atkinson plays Scheherazade as a nimble, confident guide, striking athletic postures and practically acting as puppeteer as she guides the ensemble through early scenes.

The 10 supporting actors shuffle in and out of roles effortlessly, with good impressions made not so much by individuals as by the consistent tone of the group, as they segue from the low comedy of adultery and flatulence to high-minded incidences of forgiveness and sacrifice.

Likewise, Stockman's evenhanded directorial approach, which offers something to admire at every turn -- designer Guban's shadowy lights; Yvette M. Ryan's sheer, colorful costumes; the easy way Ashley Ivey's choreography takes over when it needs to; and the fascinating babble of Zimmerman's climax.

This is only Constellation's second show -- its first was August Strindberg's daunting "A Dream Play" -- but already it has made a brave, smart beginning.

The Arabian Nights, by Mary Zimmerman. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. About 2 hours 15 minutes. With Steve Beall, Katy Carkuff, Misty Demory, Kevin Finkelstein, John Geoffrion, Gwen Grastorf, Keith E. Irby, Craig Klein, Lisa Lias and Anastasia Wilson. Through Oct. 21 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 1-800-494-8497 or visit

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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