- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Whimsy, like a pinch of saffron, is best administered in small doses. Otherwise, you might end up with something precious and overly seasoned.

That tends to be the case with the largely enchanting “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” at the Theater Alliance. Director and choreographer Kelly Parsley ladles on the fanciful touches until the audience is nearly drowning in a sea of decorative language, perfumed metaphors, and quirky movement.

Salman Rushdie conceived “Haroun” as a giant allegory depicting his troubles and exile after the publication of “The Satanic Verses” in 1988. On Valentine’s Day in 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Mr. Rushdie to death and placed a $1 million bounty on his head because of his “blasphemous” writing, and the book was banned in India and South Africa and burned on the streets of England.

Mr. Rushdie was forced into hiding for 10 years and in 1990 wrote “Haroun” as a way of describing to his young son what happened to him and also to depict the price we all pay for silencing a writer’s voice. The book was originally adapted for the Royal National Theatre by Tim Supple, who also translated another Rushdie novel, “Midnight’s Children,” for the stage.

The adaptation retains the storybook quality and intricately patterned descriptive language of Mr. Rushdie’s novel, as well as the devilish glints of humor and a subtle sense of sadness. “Haroun” is meant to entertain, but it also is meant to instruct and tell about a wrenching time in the author’s life. The allusions to book banning and religious censorship will fly right over the heads of most children, but younger audience members who like fantasy in the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” vein might enjoy the labyrinthine plot and the pseudo-mythic creatures.

“Haroun” takes place in a “sad city,” a hamlet in India so inconsolable it has forgotten its name. A master storyteller, Rashid Khalifa (Ian LeValley), lives there with his resourceful daughter (changed from a son in the book) named Haroun (Anu Yadav). When Rashid speaks, it is as though flower petals float from his lips, so bewitching and scented are his tales. But when his wife Soraya (Erica Chamblee) leaves him for a more practical man, Rashid finds himself shorn of the gift of gab.

Desperate, Haroun travels to the fabulous Sea of Stories to re-connect her father to the flow of imagination and words. After a dip in this sea, she realizes that her father’s made-up stories hold more than a kernel of veracity, and are indeed a streaming life force.

“Haroun” is a capricious mixture of “1001 and One Arabian Nights,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “The Wizard of Oz,” with its young heroine who travels to a place filled with fantastical creatures using topsy-turvy methods to get her to arrive at the truth. During her journey, she meets a water sprite (Maggie Glauber), a loquacious shadow (Jonathon Church), a speed-demon bird (Carlos Bustamante), and other assorted curiosities, including some talking fish (Miss Chamblee and Adele Robey) and a rickety general (Deb Gottesman) whose armor is comprised of book covers.

Director Parsley astutely resists the temptation to literally conjure the ornate world of Mr. Rushdie’s book. Rather, he suggests the Indian setting through brightly colored cloth, hanging mirrored lamps, ethnic costumes in eye-popping hues, and other touches. His most potent instrument is the choreography, which leans toward serpentine, ribbony movement and patterns that wind the audience into a happy trance.

However, the flowery dialogue and extravagant use of description begin to become burdensome and repetitive after awhile, and at more than 21/2-hours, “Haroun” turns into a binge rather than a visual and aural feast.

By the time the family is reunited at the end and Rashid regains his storytelling powers, you’ve pretty much had it with the curlicues and arabesques. But for those who never met a metaphor they didn’t like, “Haroun” is a tale they’ll wish would never end.

**1/2

WHAT: “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by Salman Rushdie, adapted for the stage by Tim Supple

WHERE: Theater Alliance, H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 2. Plays at Round House Theatre Silver Spring April 6 to 9.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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