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Pièce de Résistance 

A one-man version of The Thousand and One Nights proves storytelling can be dangerous

Wednesday, Jul 6 2005
Is there such a thing as an innocent story? Even the most apparently innocuous children's fairy tale or nursery rhyme is riddled with moral ambiguity, violence, and often death. Jack and Jill fall down the hill and crack their heads open; Little Red Riding Hood's sweet, bedridden granny becomes a wolf's lunch; and in one Native American legend, Coyote steals fire, but scorches a menagerieful of animals almost to death and pisses off the all-powerful guardians of those elusive flames -- the Fire Beings -- in the process. No doubt about it: Fairy tales are explosive things. And as performer Ron Campbell devastatingly demonstrates in The Thousandth Night, to tell them is to play with fire.

Conceived and written especially for Campbell more than a decade ago by writer Carol Wolf, the solo play takes us back to the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. In the cheerless waiting room of a run-down, provincial train station some 50 miles east of Paris, Guy de Bonheur, a member of a disbanded touring theater troupe arrested by the Nazis for "propagating subversive materials," tries to win over an impassive bunch of gendarmes with his storytelling skills.

A self-described "harmless entertainer," de Bonheur cannot understand why he's being sent to a concentration camp. To prove his innocence to the guards while the derailed death-camp train is being fixed, de Bonheur maniacally improvises one-man versions of some of his company's most popular theatrical productions -- stage adaptations of tales taken from The Thousand and One Nights (the ancient Central Asian story collection also popularly known as The Arabian Nights or The Thousand Nights). It's hard work. Besides the fact that de Bonheur has to play dozens of roles himself, including those formerly performed by his newly arrested, dead, or fled colleagues, the trash-strewn railroad waiting room, with its harsh lighting and filthy windowpanes, doesn't exactly bring the palm-fringed exoticism of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" or "Aladdin" to mind.

Upon first inspection, de Bonheur's skits appear to be nothing more than innocuous burlesque. The eager-to-please and exceedingly resourceful vaudevillian may only have a battered suitcase and a couple of threadbare props at his disposal, yet he manages to people his tales of abducted lovers, newly found riches, and magic genies with zany, over-the-top caricatures. But it doesn't take ramming a camel through the eye of a needle to see that de Bonheur's "innocent" little fairy tales aren't quite fit to enter the Kingdom of God. From a grisly yarn about a dead hunchback whose corpse is tossed around Baghdad like a half-deflated beach ball to the sticky demise of the Forty Thieves, most of the stories, with their casts of selfish characters, are as merciless and tough as they are fantastically funny. You could describe de Bonheur's brand of performance as one of "dislocated humorous," to coin an observation of the old doctor as he inspects the hunchback's crumpled bones.

Behind de Bonheur, a master storyteller in his own right, lies an even better one: Campbell. Vibrating with the same intensity as he did in his previous solo show, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, Campbell portrays de Bonheur -- and each of the 37 fairy-tale characters in the French thespian's stories -- as expertly as a juggler setting dozens of plates spinning inconceivably fast in the air on impossibly long, thin poles. In one scene, Campbell holds down eight characters at once, stuffing a small pillow under his shirt to represent different parts of particular anatomies. And if that's not enough, he even manages to go beyond the confines of the Arabian tales themselves by giving the audience a taste of how de Bonheur's fellow actors used to play particular roles in the good old days, before the company disbanded. For instance, in a scene from "Ali Baba," Campbell plays de Bonheur playing Etienne, the company's handsome leading man, playing the Captain of the Forty Thieves. It is through this extra filter that The Thousandth Night quietly reveals another narrative layer, one that de Bonheur would sooner hide: the story of his less heroic side.

As the threat of deportation grows with the rattle of each passing train, so the rhythm and mood of The Thousandth Night's storytelling become increasingly dark and agitated. Like Roberto Benigni's character, Guido Orefice, in the 1997 film Life Is Beautiful, who clings desperately to comedy as a way to get his family through life in a World War II concentration camp, de Bonheur and his stories carry emotional and political weight. Eventually, his fairy tales become pure agitprop theater, about as transparent as the emperor's new clothes. Meanwhile, The Thousand and One Nights' famous "framing" device -- the story of Scheherazade, a wily maiden who manages to prevent her bloodthirsty husband and king from murdering his wives by regaling him with such amazing stories that he needs to keep her alive to hear more -- is not just a simple tale as told by de Bonheur; it's a plea for mercy. The question is, will de Bonheur's tales convert the gendarmes, or will the soldiers hand him over to the Nazis quicker than you can say, "Open Sesame"?

Telling stories is one thing, but listening to them is quite another. For at one level, de Bonheur's own passivity -- his refusal to speak up for fellow actors threatened by the Nazis in the past -- is what leads in part to the breakup of his company. At another, the play calls the entire relationship between the performer onstage and the traditionally passive audience into question. Such is the tautness of Campbell's acting, Wolf's writing, and Jessica Kubzansky's direction that the audience is not only completely drawn into de Bonheur's antics, but also plays an unwitting role in deciding the man's fate. From the very first moments of the play, Campbell addresses us. We, it seems, have been cast as his guards, the Nazi-sympathizing Vichyist gendarmes. It's hardly a relaxing, sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show, munch-on-some-popcorn thought. As Campbell puts it in a recent interview with Theatre Bay Area's Karen McKevitt, "The audience is your scene partner, whether they like it or not." Simply stated, you can't sit in the audience and not be a part of this play. We feel the throb in the floorboards as each train passes, see the spluttering lights, and smell de Bonheur's fear.

It is precisely this quality that makes The Thousandth Night such a daring, deeply engaging experience. Theatrical conventions require us to be passive, not to speak out. We're supposed to sit there quietly until the end, clap politely, and head for the nearest bar. But the power of theater is such that, at its best, the audience is complicit in the experience. We cannot be passive. And yet there's a tension in that complicity, for there are not many -- and I have this on good authority from Campbell himself -- who'd forget themselves enough to stand up in the middle of a darkened auditorium on full public view and yell, "Stop! Stop! De Bonheur is innocent! Save de Bonheur!"

We are faced with an abhorrent reality: Being a good, obedient audience member in this context means being a good, obedient Vichyist gendarme. The implications of this resonate well beyond the limits of Aurora Theatre's intimate stage: Telling stories might be dangerous. It might cost you your life. But not telling them -- letting terrible things happen as you sit calmly by -- is much, much worse.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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