Theater fest soars, plummets

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Bizarre, intriguing, sometimes maddening but always challenging, Jason Grote’s “1001” opened this weekend for a monthlong run as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. It could easily become the hit of CATF’s 2007 season.

Theatergoers expecting a linear plot will come up empty-handed. Like Blake’s “Mental Traveller” or Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, “1001” investigates the human condition like a freely associative time machine.

“1001” is based loosely on the classic “1001 Nights,” in which the clever heroine Scheherazade weaves a seemingly endless tapestry of tales to evade execution by a misogynistic king. Mr. Grote takes advantage of that work’s embedded frame-tale device and conjures up a time-traveling version of his own, moving back and forth through time to examine human tribal narratives, particularly in light of our own troubled relationship with the Middle East.

Directed by the festival’s producing director Ed Herendeen, this CATF production is notable for excellent acting, often astonishing special effects and irresistibly madcap forward motion. It unfolds like an elaborate Chinese puzzle, to mix a metaphor, which, if solved, leads only to another more complex puzzle.

Remarkably free of the propaganda and didacticism that afflicts much of contemporary American art, “1001” dangles an honest question without providing an answer: are we all doomed to remain trapped within our own endlessly recycling story lines? A platoon of skilled actors fields numerous parts in this production, bringing a surprising amount of individuality to each. Chief among them are Zabryna Guevara, who saucily portrays both Scheherazade and her modern-day counterpart in Manhattan, a young Palestinian woman named Dahna, and Jonathan C. Kaplan, who becomes the ancient King Shahriyar and the contemporary Alan, a New York Jew who falls in love with Dahna.

Remaining cast members impersonate a grab bag of mythical and actual people. Marc Damon Johnson effectively portrays characters as diverse as Argentine fabulator Jorge Luis Borges (himself a literary time-traveler) and Osama bin Laden. Reshma Shetty wittily portrays Miss Guevara’s ancient and contemporary sisters and a bevy of other characters. Ariel Shafir emerges as a djinn (genie), Sinbad the Sailor and the voice of attorney Alan Dershowitz. And Carman Lacivita materializes as French novelist Gustav Flaubert and a contemporary Orthodox Jewish scholar among others.

“1001” is heady stuff, leavening cosmic questions with unexpected bursts of off-the-wall humor. Juicy comedic bits include a hilarious set piece in which bin Laden and his minions moonwalk like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s video “Thriller,” and a first-ever George Bush gag that will have both sides of the political aisle collapsing in laughter.

First-night problems were few, although the rapid dialogue coupled with foreign accents was sometimes unintelligible. Slowing it down just a bit would help.

WHAT: Jason Grote’s “1001” at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

WHERE: Frank Center Theater on the campus of Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHEN: Through July 29. Showtimes vary.

TICKETS: $26 to $36, with festival packages available.

INFORMATION: Call 800/999-2283 or visit online at www.catf.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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