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"One Arabian Night," by Betty Shamieh '96, is both bold and honorable in trying to address the ways in which Arab-American women must negotiate their sexuality within American and Arab-American society. While this difficult and upsetting story is ambitious, the production in the Adams Pool Theater this past weekend faltered because of flat acting, technical problems and heavy-handedness.
The play's plot is complex. Jane (Lucia Brawley '99) and Tarik (Aaron Mathes '98), a young Arab-American couple, return to the house where Jane grew up in order to pack up her remaining belongings before her move to New York, where she is going to be a professional dancer. As soon as Tarik leaves Jane's room, the ghost of Deedee (Melissa Gibson '99), Jane's best friend from high school who died seven years earlier, appears and demands that Jane paint a portrait of her.
Suddenly, the action of play shifts to the past and we learn how Jane and Deedee were required to be good Arab girls and how they also wanted to have fun like American girls. After watching the ways in which Jane's brother Samir (Santiago Tapia '97) and Deedee's boyfriend Nader (Andrew Pitcher '97) treat women, the audience is left with the impression that Arab-American men, with few exceptions, are evil: they only want sex from women and yet demand that all Arab women be virgins at marriage. The younger Tarik is seemingly virtuous, but his occasional sexist, over-bearing outbursts in both the past and present prove he should be guilty by association.
The play climaxes when Deedee discovers she is pregnant with Nader's child. He has rejected her, and she is determined to have the child. Jane tries to convince Deedee to save the reputation of her family and have an abortion, but she flatly refuses. However, in the last five, extremely confusing and bizarre minutes of the play, it is revealed that Deedee died after a home abortion. Suddenly, back in the present, Jane begins to act like this is all a revelation to her (when it's not), and she seems to have some sort of an epiphany about being an Arab-American woman. What that epiphany is is not made clear.
Much about this production was not clear. While the plot was interesting, if a little too heavy-handed, the actors made watching the play uncomfortable. For some reason Melissa Gibson's Deedee-as-ghost ran laps around the stage while nastily berating poor Jane. Why was she berating her? Aaron Mathes seemed to have difficulty with Tarilc While he was appealing (mostly for lack of any positive male characters), his mood changes and facial expressions were awkward as well as unexplained. Santiago Tapia delivered Samir's lines unsure of appropriate emphasis. He did not seem comfortable moving around the stage. As the purely evil Nader, Andrew Pitcher was more believable, but he also could not stand still.
On the other hand, Lucia Brawley's Jane was pleasant to watch. Well cast as a beautiful, sweet dancer, Brawley was the most able of the cast to hold the stage. Unfortunately she was forced to say some of the most ridiculous lines of the play, mostly concerning the plight of the Arab-American woman. Sometimes one wondered whether or not Shamieh was making fun of Jane: "I'm neither Arab nor American. I'm myself."
While the actors were problematic, they weren't helped by the technical problems or the Adams Pool Theater, which is an extremely limiting space. To get around having only two entrances, actors were forced to hide behind flats for up to ten minutes. Wondering what they were doing back there was highly distracting. Also, the way in which time transitions and flashbacks were made, with brighter lights to mark "The Present," was undermined when costumes didn't change with the passing of seven years.
Student written plays have been much maligned in recent years, and usually without recognizing that they are written by students. Rarely are these plays finished products, and they should not be considered as such. While this production was not a success. "One Arabian Night" has an enormous amount of potential. The themes Shamieh is trying to dramatize are powerful and engaging, and some of the dialogue is very well written. The problem was that it just did not gel into good theater. But this does not mean it can't in the future.
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