One Thousand and One

By - Oct 15th, 2008 02:52 pm

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Theatre Department opened its 2008-2009 season with a Mainstage production of 1001 by Jason Grote. Straying from the standard university fare of well-known and over-produced plays, UWM bravely chose a newer work by a contemporary playwright. This bold move gave voice to some wonderful moments and connections, but ultimately was too imposing for the UWM Theatre Department to grapple with.

Jason Grote wrote this play as a reaction to September 11, 2001. However, he is adamant that it is not a 9/11 play. The backbone of the play is the first English translation of The Arabian Nights. Other works and artists are woven in, such as Gustave Flaubert, Jorge Luis Borges and even Monty Python. Some of the literary references will float over the heads of many audience members, however, the comedy of these references is playable at two levels; the audience shouldn’t ever feel as though they missed something. Grote uses the scenes of 9/11 to explore modern racial relationships, but also to tie them back to a common history.

1001 shifts back and forth between several different stories, between space and time and between sparse realistic moments and pure magic. In a brief talk back following opening night, Grote spoke about incorporating magic into his work. His feeling that magic and mysticism can and should be utilized in live theatre is a welcome break from the super-realistic and angst-ridden relationship plays that are currently popular. Grote’s play is by no means straight forward, which proved to be cumbersome for most of the actors.

All the actors in 1001 play more than one character. When actors are multi-cast, it can either be delightful and magnificent or confusing and dispirited. Director Rebecca Holderness obviously tried to encourage each actor to discover distinct physical mannerisms for each character, which is key when a single actor portrays several personas. Adrian F. Feliciano did this wonderfully as he played One Eyed Arab, Mostafa and Sinbad. Each character was distinct and crisp. It was also clear that Porsha G. Knapp had a clear understanding of her three characters, Princess Maridah, Juml and Lubna. She was endearing and completely engaged with her work. However, several cast members were not able to keep their characters separate from one another. They seemed to rely on costume changes and alterations to announce that they were now a new person with a new set of beliefs and reactions. While costumes did play an important role, the actors cannot trust in fabric alone to do the work for them-it’s lazy.

Holderness may not have gotten the best out of all her actors, but she was able to address Grote’s epic storytelling with humor and ease. Most notable was a scene where Princess Maridah is to be pushed off a great height as punishment from her father. Death is imminent. Instead of trying to stage a realistic death scene, Holderness kept it straight laced until the big push, when Knapp daintily stepped down off the dooming perch, threw her head back and screamed as though she was falling hundreds of feet to the ground. Princess Maridah’s father and brother watched her ‘fall,’ turning a tense filicidal scene on its head.

UWM should be commended for choosing a contemporary playwright who creates alternate realities instead of regurgitating used ones. But UWM’s self-touted BFA program left much to be desired. More should be expected and demanded of a program striving to turn out professional theatre artists. VS

1001 runs through October 19, in the Mainstage Theatre at 2400 E Kenwood Blvd on the UWM campus. 414.229.4308 or

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