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Two student-actors; one holding a book.

University of Minnesota student-actors Mark Rehani (King Shahryar) and Aida Leguizamon (Scheherezade).

Arabian Nights at the U: Riveting storytelling

U students bring to life tales from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night

By Pauline Oo

April 24, 2007

Editor's note: We've just received word (1 p.m., April 26) that tickets to the remaining shows have sold out. You could, however, try your luck; someone may cancel reserved tickets or decide not attend.

You won't see Sinbad, Ali Baba, or Aladdin. Instead, you'll meet the Madman, Sympathy the Learned, Perfect Love, and a host of other lesser-known characters in the University of Minnesota theatre and dance department's Arabian Nights--a play adapted by Tony Award-winning Mary Zimmerman from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night.

Set in Baghdad, Arabian Nights follows the tale of the new queen Scheherazade's marriage to the Persian king Shahryar, who is known to marry a different woman every day, only to have her executed the next day at dawn. To stay alive, Scheherazade, played by Aida Leguizamon, tells the king elaborate stories that end in cliffhangers as dawn breaks. Scheherazade continues this for 1,001 nights, forcing the king to change his outlook on women--and, ultimately, saving the remaining virgins of her city from being killed.

Leguizamon and her 14 fellow cast members act out Scheherazade's stories, which deal with issues such as betrayal, trust, greed, and love. Not only are the students chameleons in their vocal and facial expressions--each having to take on multiple roles--they are quite adept at switching between singing and dancing or playing a musical instrument and any number of animals (donkey, camel, etc.) or things (a boat, a mountain...). The transitions from story to story are unique, with Leguizamon (Scheherazade) sometimes saying lines simultaneously with characters.

In the first part of the almost two-hour play, expect slapstick comedy and thigh-slapping guffaws to fill the intimate setting of the hexagonal stage in Rarig Center's Kilburn Arena Theatre. University senior Adri Mehra shines in his depiction of a decrepit old man stuck with an ugly daughter. He doesn't need a wig or makeup to disguise the fact that he is a college student in his 20s; his nasally speech and creaky mannerisms hide that fact. Mehra also plays the spiritual head of Islam Harun al-Rashid and Muslim scholar Sheikh al-Islam throughout the show.

After the 15-minute intermission, an air of seriousness takes over. Tales about manners and the ethics of survival in a complex world run by capricious tyrants but governed by a benevolent God can pluck at your heartstrings. In the second act you'll learn what is sharper than a knife, the purpose of copulation, and the most precious thing after health. Jasmine Rush, who plays Sympathy the Learned, will tell you. The theater major shows impressive talent in memorization, reciting long and complicated lists of information for her all-knowing character without missing a beat.

"Although Arabian Nights is primarily secular in the matters it treats, and cannot be said to be especially religious, nor its stories representative of Islam as practiced either now or in the past, nonetheless, some of the finest and most noble sentiments in Islam--fairness, compassion, a love of learning, and forgiveness--shine in the actions of the characters," says director Joel Sass. "I feel it is particularly desirable to do this piece now, when the part of the world where the Nights originated is threatened by such turmoil."

Arabian Nights continues through this weekend; remaining performances are Thursday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, April 27, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, April 28, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 to $14. Buy online or call the University Arts Ticket Office at 612-624-2345.

Viewer tip: Wear layers or bring a fan. If the weather is muggy, like it was last Saturday when outdoor temps reached 82 degrees, the theatre can be hot and a little stuffy.