A story is only as good as its teller, and Rosanna Gamson/World Wide spins a compelling tale with its version of the One Thousand and One Nights, Layla Means Night, on view twice nightly Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at ODC Theater. The piece retells the story of a jealous king who, betrayed by his first wife, kills her and marries virgin after virgin, beheading each after their first night together, until the wily survivor Scheherazade cheats death with her gift for a good yarn. The program is an immersive theatrical experience that begins in the theater lobby with optional ritual hand-washing by (we are assured) genuine virgins (teenage dancers from the ODC Dance Jam), a bar, and a woman in a red dress (Carin Noland) ominously cleaving oranges with assertive thwacks.
The base narrative is presented by the poet Niloufar Talebi with all parties present on two sides of a silk curtain. The sequence is beautifully staged, with speech, dance, and a modest yet marvelous use of shadows composed to remind viewers that the ordinary can transform into the unexpectedly wonderful without great technological investment. This scene also foreshadows the mystery of the rest of the evening, in which the audience, divided in groups and led through a maze of stairwells and studios by theater staff, experiences a subset of the action and intrigue of multiple worlds existing in simultaneity.
Among these worlds are confined spaces with peepholes or frames cut in, revealing a wrist, a waist, a breast. Noland and C. Derrick Jones III, in the role of the king, dance a steamy pas de deux as they pass a burning cigarette back and forth, smoke billowing out from their mouths through sinuous and gymnastic lifts observed voyeuristically through the perforations in the walls. A similar view is presented in a bedroom with walls of paper penciled over with clouds, long strips curling from places torn to look through, in which Gabrielle Rhodeen, half-dressed in an open wedding gown, plagues Jones with overwrought monologues about sexual anxieties, only relieved when she begins to tell Scheherazade's stories.
These moments are garlanded with more abstract sequences by dancers in long red gowns. They are lithe and luxurious, winding and flowing and then slicing through the air with the sting of thrown daggers, sometimes creeping submissively, sometimes fiercely defiant. The masterful Shahrzad Khorsandi dances solo to music composed and played live by Houman Pourmehdi and Pirayeh Pourafar. The audience is seated at a feast of fruits and wine, offered chocolates and strawberries, encouraged to ululate, tantalized by a single dancer in the stairwell, moved again and again past and through the sets before the senses have been sated. Everything--the scent of flowers, a melody, a sentence, a butterfly suspended from a fishing line, a silk sheet waving--is experienced in parts in this universe and never to completion. Like the king, the audience is bewitched by the spectacle and left wanting and wondering.
Rosanna Gamson/World Wide presents Layla Means Night at 7pm and 9pm Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F. Tickets are $35-50; odcdance.org/laylameansnight.