WORD GOT AROUND last week after Aladdin's messy opening night that the show resembled a high school pageant, but even in its more advanced state. Timothy Mayer's "work in progress" has the clumsy charm of an exemplary school production: friends, peers, teachers cavorting good-naturedly, often unsteadily, sometimes bursting out in wondrous and unexpected ways: the audience supplying a liberal amount of sympathy and imagination: and even the most accomplished contributions kept modest and self-effacing. It's a deceptively lumbering production, and not an inappropriate one. Aladdin in Three Acts is Mayer's wise and innocent paean to adolescence, that "state of grace" before the mask has been cemented to one's face, when one's body contains the universe and one's possibilities are similarly boundless. He has gathered his former classmates and collaborators--as well as a talented group of undergraduates--together in the Agassiz Theatre to mount not a slick adventure but a philosophical meditation, with music and some dance, on an appealing, though troubling fairy tale. Mayer has clearly puzzled, and asked the right questions, and penetrated to the heart of the Aladdin legend.
Narrated by many of the play's characters--most notably the clear-eyed, ironic Scholar Wu, who wanders around in portable stocks with a sign that says "Drunkard" draped around his neck--this is the tale of a decent, confused lad, whose body is "a tent of exile" from society. Scolded by his mother for his idleness. Aladdin is dispatched by a wicked magician to an enchanted cave, where he is to fetch a magic lamp. Aladdin winds up hanging onto the lamp, using its genie to help win the hand of a Sultan's beautiful daughter. The magician, of course, steals the lamp, along with the Princess.
In less thoughtful hands the tale of Aladdin has been a dandy thriller, "an adolescent's dream of revenge," as Mayer points out in a program note. But Mayer eliminates much of the suspense: Aladdin's difficulties are solved handily by two genies, and the lad swiftly and stoically executes the evil magician, who has been drugged by the Princess. So what's the point? Aladdin, the Sultan explains at the end of the play, got lucky. But he measured up to his luck, he gave it a good home. Throughout the play. Aladdin's spirit is large and independent enough to control his own destiny. If he is not particularly sensitive to the sufferings of his mother and father, neither does he depend on them for an identity, as does the appropriately-named Son of the Grand Wazir (who is deposited into the Princess's marriage bed by his father's influence and desire and is similarly plucked from it by forces he cannot control--or even comprehend).
Nor does Aladdin resign himself to his fate, as does a dishonest merchant, whose excuse for cheating the boy is. "It's my destiny." (Early in the play, a paradoxically liberated slave girl not only refuses to be sold to the dishonest merchant, but she helps an honest one to pay for her.) "Don't wait for angels to save you," the slave girl sings at the evening's end. "Make a home in the body God gave you. Alone." Aladdin, then, is the story of a boy whose "exile" from the material world keeps him honest, open and strong.
Mayer's script is a farrago of styles, all of them challenging, from the evil magician's bloated Miltonian opening speech to the Scholar Wu's delicate (and suitably alcoholic) Eastern lyricism in a poem called "Kite Fight," which he recites while being whipped. (The scene is stylized and relatively painless, the Scolar Wu seeming to leave his body far behind, the onlookers emitting the sound of the lash.) Our bodies are kites in a kite fight, he says--the kites a long way off.
There are also angry, loving, weary monologues by Aladdin's mother, delivered in suitably earth-bound settings, and consistently funny allusions to the Sultan's autonomy, as when the Grand Wazir explains to the disrespectful Scholar Wu that the Sultan has spared his life because "the absolute impotence of your attacks consoles him." Or when a Lady of the Sultan's court agrees with Aladdin's mother about the Princess's beauty: "She's a lovely girl. I say so, so should you: to do otherwise would be treason."
THE PRODUCTION IS, in spots, sloppily executed, with lack of rehearsal, perhaps, contributing to an aura of tentativeness, the performers occasionally sagging like the deadly Persian rugs that hang over the stage. Mayer has staged his play in a series of tableaux, the colorfully costumed actors moving dutifully into position, one character usually wandering aimlessly in the middle. Act One has a lot of exposition, a lot of aimless wandering: in Act Two the plot perks up and Mayer's comic invention peaks. Certainly this is sped along by the appearance of the Genie of the Lamp, whose entrances and exits have been hilariously choreographed by Bonnie Zimmering as a series of campy musical-comedy moves, half-heartedly tossed off by the very tall and funny Kate Levin--elaborately bored, I guess, is how you'd describe her. She comes equipped with an ingeni(e)ous echo, a snotty little girl's voice placed piercingly over the audience. Most of the other special effects have a deliberately plodding quality: the magician is lowered--haltingly--from the splashy proscenium on a "magic carpet"; an actor stands on a platform that is then turned round and round by other actors to indicate movement through space or disorientation; a charmingly flustered little girl (Tamsy Johnson) removes her ape head at the end of the show and recites--haltingly--a speech about how she's not really an ape, but the wicked magician cast this spell...
The four actors playing Aladdin are supposed to embody different aspects of his character. Some do--Jeannie Affelder, with her melancholy clown's face and breathily resonant voice, touchingly conveys the pain of protean identity, and Rodman Flender does well with Aladdin's ironic side. Kevin Avery and Paul Warner--though able performers--do not realize markedly different dimensions of the character. Although the protagonist's multiplicity robs the show of a central performer with whom one could empathize, the four Aladdin's intriguingly suggest an entire universe within a single body. (More's the pity that some people go through life as caricatures, eh?)
Peter Ivers '68 has provided a genuinely spectacular score, which runs the gamut from pulsating rock to bits of C & W, some classy jazz, a haunting violin solo, and, for atmosphere, is orchestrated to include a kind of bubbling woodblock. Sometimes the music enhances the mood, and sometimes it undercuts it, commenting on the action. Frequently tongue-in-cheek, it is always imaginative and melodious, orchestrated with pizazz and performed with panache by 12 musicians (including Ivers on harmonica, who can be viewed in full light during the curtain call).
The ensemble, clearly under-rehearsed, doesn't really gel, but there is nice work by lots of capable actors. Among Mayer's previous collaborators, Woodward Wickham is an unmagical magician and Andrea Portago a plebian Lady, but Francis Gitter has a compelling presence, rivetingly sad eyes, and moments of gaunt, tranquil beauty as Aladdin's mother, and Vincent Canzoneri is a wittily forthright Scholar Wu. As the Grand Wazir, David Prum reveals a precious comic style, a sublimely funny blend of ham and deadpan, and Jenny Cornuelle, a most impudently regal actress, is a flashing, mesmerizing Sultan. Maybe best of all is the Princess of Bonnie Zimmering, who has never seemed as exquisitely sculpted, as delicately, opalescently winsome; she has developed a sly and bewitching way of infusing her lines with a touch of impish satire. In the large supporting cast, Sarah Sewall, Martha Hackett and Philip Pitha contribute especially fine bits.
It's a shame that Mayer was too busy trying to finish his script to spend more time rehearsing his actors, but--hell--I can sympathize with slow, thoughtful writers--this review was scheduled to run yesterday. Though the production is untidy and the play unfinished (Mayer might fill out his protagonist and tighten in particular the first act). Aladdin is an exhilarating reminder that theatrical magic is most wondrous when it is achieved without tricks.