Laboratory Theater's Scheherazade, a work in progress now in performance at the Bowery's Dixon Place theater, ambitiously aims to "lay bare the extravagant sex and violence of these bejeweled tales through a hybrid of marathon storytelling, slapstick physicality, and elegantly absurdist ballet." When the project is in a more complete state, it might achieve some of those objectives. At the moment, it is an incomprehensible mess. As a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade plays, a troupe of four performers (Corey Dargel, Sheila Donovan, Oleg Dubson, and Alexis McNab) take turns reading, at breakneck speed, from Richard Burton's Victorian translation of the 10th-century Middle Eastern folklore compilation Alf Laila wa-Laila, better known as Arabian Nights. In this famous piece, Scheherazade, the wise and witty new bride of the mythical, tyrannical sultan Schahryar, tells him a thousand and one nights' worth of periodically interrupted stories, ultimately convincing him to abandon his policy of serial marriage and daily wife murder.
The speed of the reading made it difficult to follow. The ballet, consisting of rather stagy modern dance and repetitive, choreographically unoriginal, simulated sex, was neither elegant nor absurd. It also seemed constrained by Dixon Place's small performance space.
Director Yvan Greenberg has cast a skinny, topless man (Oleg Dubson) as Scheherazade and a woman in greasepaint facial hair (Sheila Donovan) as Schahryar. The other two performers also play roles in a gender opposite from their own. The intention behind this interpretation is unclear, as the actors make no attempt to embody their characters' genders. The female performers gave themselves "erections" by prancing about with scimitars held between their legs, and the male performers shook their nonexistent breasts. That alone does not constitute convincing mimesis, nor innovative satire.
The show appears glaringly unrehearsed. The actors read much of the text from printed, bound scripts on music stands. At the performance I saw, they made a few reading errors, skipping words and then returning to them. Greenberg assured me after the performance that this was deliberate. Several times during the show, Dubson had to pause to pull his slipping face veil back onto his nose, and once his pants slipped a bit as well, revealing decidedly modern black underwear.
The costumes, designed by Greenberg, are humdrum Orientalist clichés: a kaffiyeh for the Sultan, pink harem pants and face veil for Scheherazade. I did not understand why the sound design, also by Greenberg, included incomprehensible mumblings through what sounded like police or military walkie-talkies.
Throughout the performance, two small televisions, placed at frustrating angles perpendicular to the sight line of the entire center audience section, played a loop of interesting animated cartoons. This video material was created by Dubson, "using images," says the program, "by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, N. Simakoff, and Lotte Reininger." It seemed to have very little to do with the live action unfolding simultaneously. At a moment when two women characters are described giving birth, the screens showed a pair of magical creatures fighting and periodically transforming themselves into different animals.
According to Greenberg, this "work in progress" may change throughout its Dixon Place run. This means that the Scheherazade you see, if you choose to see it, might not be the show reviewed here.
I have no objection to artistic experimentation, but theater companies have a duty to create work that is completed enough to engage the audience. What I saw at Dixon Place was difficult to hear and often not understandable, provoking first frustration, then boredom. Instead of illuminating, clarifying, or deconstructing Burton's Nights, Laboratory Theater's production, in its present state, only obfuscates it.