‘Angamazad’ review: handmade tales

Fox & Beggar Theater's circus-style production lights up Arabian Nights

And Shahrazade noticed that dawn was approaching and stopped telling her tale. Thereupon Dunazade said, “Oh sister, your tale was most wonderful, pleasant and delightful.”

“It is nothing compared to what I could tell you tomorrow night, if the king would spare my life,” Shahrazade said.

“By Allah,” the king thought to himself. “I won’t slay her until I hear some more of her wondrous tales.”

That’s the setup of A Thousand and One Nights a/k/a Arabian Nights a/k/a Alf Layla Wa Layla, the compendium of thrilling stories of Sindbad the Seaman, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and so many more.

Fox & Beggar’s ‘Angamazad.’ Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt.

And that’s the story (or at least a glimpse of it) that Fox & Beggar Theater brought to Portland’s Alberta Abbey for a one-weekend run at the end of last month. With over 4,000 pages of folk tales from across the Middle East available in the colossal collection, drawn from both recent (Lyons & Lyons) and 1888 (Richard Burton’s classic) translations, the creative team of writer/director Heather Beckett and her F&B co-artistic director Nat Allister had to be selective. And while, hamstrung by a tedious opening sequence, it couldn’t keep me entirely enthralled for its three-plus hour running time, much less a thousand nights and a night, Angamazad offered abundant enthusiasm and moments of magic.

Like its source material, Angamazad told stories within stories. Shahrazad’s vengeful husband, King Shahryar, betrayed by his first wife (as was his brother by his) has vowed revenge on faithless women by marrying a new virgin bride each day and executing her after deflowering her each night. By tantalizing her homicidal husband with incomplete tales, his new bride entices him to spare her life for almost three years, until their bonds, both nuptial and parental, have so solidified that he renounces his murderous vows and repents all those executions. It’s one of humanity’s most enduring portrayals of the power of storytelling.

Shahrazad’s death-defying tales formed the frame here, too — until the end, when it poignantly collided with a similar story she’s not-so-coincidentally telling. Beckett decided to occasionally break the frame, with Shahrazad, Shahryar and others interacting with the characters in the fairy tale she’s recounting. According to the program, Beckett chose “to explore aspects of the story where there seemed to be inexplicable shifts, missing pieces, or crazy-quilted renditions,” sometimes including a story about a character who’s telling yet another story. Nevertheless, somehow we never lost our place.

What really distinguished this production from other Arabian Nights retellings was its circus arts, or to use its own description “cirque poétique (the poetic circus). Featuring ornate storytelling interwoven with the unusual logic of dreams, our productions lie in the space between physical theatre, dance, design, contemporary circus arts and acrobatics, mask-and-puppetry, music, and visual art.”

Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt.

The combination splendidly suited the magical story, with tech director Allister, choreographic assistant Alicia Cutaia and director Beckett skillfully packing plenty of flying (stage management, rigging, and aerial choreography by Heidi Lajosand) and otherworldly action into a constrained stage space. There’s a lot of moving parts and a big cast enacting simultaneous stories on a tiny stage, yet at the third and final performance, everything seemed to run smoothly, a testament to the company’s dedication and hard work.

While a more technically equipped theater would have allowed more imaginative lighting, Ghost Stag Productions’ intentionally handmade-looking sets, Al’Lowe’s props, and Carrie Anne Huneycutt’s costumes somehow looked both sumptuous and lovingly home-crafted — an ideal combo for the subject. While a megabucks operation like Cirque du Soleil would have no doubt included actual flying boats, Fox&Beggar made do with a mere facade, which humbly “floated” across stage on the moving feet of its passengers. No one seemed to mind, least of all the cast, who cheerfully bought wholly into their homemade illusions and brought the audience with them.

The incidental music by Portland’s Mr. Moo, which leaned toward the electronic exotica of say Beats Antique or Thievery Corporation, generally served its function well. Some songs showed a sophistication not often found in the Disneyfied pop soundtrack style that other numbers recalled. The singers handled their sometimes challenging passages adeptly. But there were times when I wanted more than just background sound based on repeated figures, alternating with songs/arias — more versatile music that enhanced or counterpointed the emotional flow of the stories. It was a treat to hear, during the enchanting shadow screen sequence, snatches of a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s immortal orchestral work, Scheherezade.

In a show that frequently conjured some seductive magic, and not just in the circus/acrobatic sequences, the spell was too often broken by pedestrian or worse line readings of Beckett’s spoken-word poetry. With some exceptions, the acting could charitably be described as about on the level of a good college production, including the welcome youthful enthusiasm. Most of the cast seemed to be chosen for circus, dance, or singing skills rather than acting — particularly vocal acting — ability. A revised and revived production might better let the performers focus on the other talents they are really good at, and leave the expository dialogue (perhaps converted to voiceover, or narrated by Shahrazad) to actors selected for that skill.

Trimming the talking could also help solve Angamazad’s other drawback: it’s too long. We weren’t the only audience members who looked and sounded worn out as we departed after three-plus hours. The show could easily jettison much of the plodding, overlong opening segment that explains the widely familiar 1,000 Nights set up. Most everything important about the introductory frame story could be quickly narrated in summary exposition, maybe accompanied by shadow play or dance.

Overall, though the upside of “amateur” (using the strict definition that comes from “love”) far more often overcame the downside. Despite its flaws, what really sustains Angamazad is its creators’ and performers’ obvious devotion to the material. Their irresistible charm and enthusiasm kept me engaged even when dramatic energy flagged or amateurish line readings jolted us out of the dream.The charming sets, costumes, really the whole thing, lent a sincerity and a homemade magic that swept aside most doubts. Even though the company, founded in Asheville, North Carolina by Allister in 2013, is new to Portland, the show had that lovingly crafted DIY feel that characterizes so much of our state’s most distinctive art. It looks like Fox & Beggar is going to be a happy addition to Portland’s genre-fluid performance scene. Like King Shahryar, I’m eager to experience their next tale.

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