Target Margin Theater specializes in the rediscovery, reinterpretation, de- and re-construction, and theatrical reimagination of its source material, whether that’s classic plays, mostly-forgotten scripts, or new adaptations of other literary works. The devised piece Pay No Attention to the Girl begins a multi-year and multi-part investigation of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folktales collected over centuries and unified under the frame story of Scheherazade, who saves her own life night after night through the power of her storytelling. Pay No Attention focuses in on one particular story and its sub-narratives: the story of a king whose son has sex with his own favorite concubine–possibly she betrays the king, possibly she is raped. Trying to decide whether his son should be killed for this offense, the king hears stories from his viziers about the perfidy of women, and from his concubine about the perfidy of men.
Director David Herskovits and the ensemble (who, along with the design team, jointly conceived and scripted the piece) aim to capture and illuminate the myriad contradictions in One Thousand and One Nights: The seductive intimacy of storytelling versus the massive sweep and scope of the thousand tales. The heroism and self-determination of the woman at the center, Scheherazade, who survives where every wife before her has been killed the morning after her wedding night, and many of the princesses and other women depicted in the tales versus the larger cultural backdrop–also in the tales–of a culture where women are interchangeable and replaceable sexual objects, easily discarded after use. The gender oppositions baked into the frame story–one gender must be perfidious–versus the more fluid and complex attitudes toward gender and social roles in the tales themselves. The ancient fables set in a time and place of kings and concubines, djinns and ifrits versus their modern resonances. But Pay No Attention to the Girl founders as often as it succeeds. The idea of teasing out individual stories and re-mythologizing them against modern language and attitudes has promise, as does the idea of simply asserting the primacy and necessity of the act of storytelling itself–but randomness in the production elements and what often feel like shallow or lazy choices with the modern language trip up the whole.
All the members of the ensemble, well-chosen to display a diversity of ages, cultural and theatrical backgrounds, and performance vocabularies, play a variety of roles, but with the exception of Caitlin Naseema Cassidy’s curtain speech in the persona of director/artistic director David Herskovits, when the performers step into roles inside the stories, those roles are assigned for the most part by gender: Anthony Vaughn Merchant plays the primary king; Deepali Gupta his wife; Lori Vega the possibly deceptive concubine; Samy El-Noury the prince; etc. Given the skills of all five, it feels like a missed opportunity not to play more directly with the gender issues highlighted in the stories and the script.
There’s a pleasing brightness and eclectic aesthetic to Carolyn Mraz’s set design and Dina El-Aziz’s costumes–glittery fabrics, colorful screens, overstuffed couches as half of the seating–but the different playing areas get muddled and almost lost in the cavernous Doxsee space, especially since much of Kate McGee’s lighting design is practicals–chandeliers and faux chandeliers made of coiled rope lights that uncoil into long strings of light. The lighting is clever and adds to the visual effect, but it’s often hard to figure out where to look. The sound mix, too (designed by Herskovits and run live by “sound demon” Jesse Freedman, often appearing onstage), is eclectic, often distractingly so–some sections are miked obviously, others not; sometimes there’s extremely loud recorded music, sometimes quiet singing.
In an interview about the piece, El-Noury describes it as “a ritual, not a play”–and that makes sense; there is a repetitive, relational quality about it that makes it feel almost more for the benefit of the performers than for the audience. I found the most effective sections to be the ones that were the most straight-up storytelling, with the performers sharing the bits of each tale and finding their own meanings in them; those had an almost Brechtian quality that allowed the audience, too, to both think about the material and commune with the ritual. Other stabs at different styles and techniques–clearly scripted stumbles and verbal slips; movement sequences with overbright, overloud pop music; the occasional song–didn’t connect as well with me.
Pay No Attention to the Girl runs to April 21, 2018. More production info can be found here.