This past Friday we had the premiere of One More Night.
Here's a recap of the show:
First, Audrey, our director/music tech, came out to introduce the show. She warmed up the audience by having them introduce a thunderstorm. One side of the crowd thumpthumped their feet on the ground like the patter of rain. The other side blew "whooosh" like the howling wind. And then Audrey cued a thunderbolt and the whole audience shouted, "BOOM!"
You'll recall that for every performance, we have an 'opening narrator'. In the opening scene of the show, we have a crowd scene. The narrator then steps out of the crowd, gets everybody's attention, and tells them all a story. Logistically, the narrator introduces Shahryar and Shahrazad, and then gets out of the way and lets those two take over.
So I was the first scheduled opening narrator, which meant I had basically the first speaking role of the run. (Go me!) The audience really enjoyed my performance -- though to be honest, a lot of my narrator parts were pre-scripted in my head.
You see, each opening narrator comes up with the setting for the opening scene ahead of time. About a week or two before the premiere, I'd decided on "a man giving a speech after his daughter's wedding". I liked that setup because it gave me a clear prompt to ask for ("advice for young lovers"), and a clear reason for giving the speech (to teach the kids a valuable lesson before they head off to married life), and a clear high point to head to with the last scene ("Yay! They're married! Let's dance!"). Mainly I liked that it could be emotional and heartfelt, and figured it could serve as a sort of counterbalance if the rest of the show streaked off to zany-land.
But of course I had it rattling around in my head for all that time, so I slowly accumulated most of what I wanted to say.
So the reception got started, and the partygoers got into hijinx around the stage. I entered, stood up on an elevated platform, tapped my cane on the floor, and got everyone's attention.
I talked about how my daughter Malik (Madi) had just been wed to Farouk (Andreas), and how yes, there was going to be music and dancing, but an old man should be given license to talk for a bit. Then I asked people for 'a piece of advice to give to young lovers'. I pointed out at the audience: "... including all of you people in the back! YES, I can SEE you!" It took some prodding, but eventually people tentatively spoke a few suggestions. "If you love something, set it free." "Be patient." "Don't keep all the apples."
That last one intrigued me. "Ah, yes. Greed can destroy many a loving marriage." Then I went into a schtick I like to do as the narrator: "I could tell you of the Great Djinn of the West, who devoured an entire caravan simply because he loved the scent of camels. I could tell you of..." at this point I mentioned a second promising story, only to discount it and move on.
See, I like to establish the world a bit by inventing (and then dismissing) a couple of possible story threads. I also like how this makes story number three seem really cool. Ideally, the onstage audience likes both of the thrown-away stories, but then when they hear title number three, they all ooh and aah because *that* one is the really amazing one. Also -- and this is perhaps selfish of me -- I love coming up with story titles.
So I told them all the title of this story: "But no," I said, "I shall speak of Andalib and the Dozen Apples."
And then I went on to introduce Shahrazad and Shahryar. I imitated how Curtis did this in rehearsals (ooh, he's the narrator on Friday) -- he in turn was cueing off of Audrey's advice that we start with a sort of 'establishing shot' of the city, and then gradually narrow our focus to the palace, then to whatever room the two characters are in.
I said something like this: "Imagine you are a great bird soaring through the sky. And you look down on the coastal waters. And then you speed through the air, past miles and miles of hot desert sand. You see the sparse camps of the bedouins, then small settlements, and then, you fly over the streets of a great city! You pass its houses and its bustling marketplaces and approach a great, white palace that stretches up into the clouds. The brazen doors creak open, and you rush in, down hallways of pink marble with staunch guards, past decorated antechambers, and then to a courtyard, open to the sky, with a fountain of shimmering water, and two lovers lounging nearby, enjoying fruit and wine."
I was happy with that.
Anyway, at this point, our Shahryar and Shahrazad for the evening slipped out of the party-guest audience and took center stage. I shifted out of the way.
Shahryar (Julie) told us about the Sultan of Cairo (Avi) who found out about a tree of fire with golden apples that was somewhere across the desert. And there was a warning that only someone pure of heart could safely pluck these treasures. So off Avi went, with his vizier's daughter, Kayla (Meghan) in tow.
At this point I did something a little "drive-y". During one of the scenes where Avi and Meghan trooped across the desert, I threw a shawl over my costume and kneeled center stage as a poor, weeping beggar woman. I explained that my son Naveen (Andreas) had died trying to take the apples from the fire tree. After I set up my story at some length, the other performers realized I had taken over the narration (in retrospect, I should have cued this by, y'know, *leaving the stage*).
I wanted to introduce a storyteller-within-the-story as soon as possible. During our tech rehearsal (IIRC), no one ever took over storyteller duties from Shahrazad, and I didn't want Julie to have to carry the whole show that way (though she easily could have). I wanted to establish early on, "There will be additional 'inner' storytellers." So there I was, forcing the sultan's tale to temporarily give way to this virtuous young man who went traipsing off to the tree of fire, only to die horribly.
After that, I was doing more proper improv and less pre-planned stuff, so I remember little of what happened.
I know that the sultan travelled on to the mountains, where he and Kayla encountered a baby. Shortly afterwards, they encountered a pair of thieves who were the baby's adoptive parents. They insisted the sultan and Kayla were baby-robbers.
Then they told the story of where the baby came from. One of the thieves immediately piped up, "Oh, is this the one where the lady turns into an eagle?!"
"Be patient. We'll get to that. We have to tell the story in order."
I was introduced as the sultan's falconer. And then... okay, here it gets hazy. I was also the sultan's wife's lover. (I think there was some disagreement as to whether I was the sultan or the falconer.) And the sultan's wife (Julie) thought I was more in love with the birds than with her. ("Oh, this is the eagle part!") And then I transformed her into an eagle. And I was perfectly happy with that. At some point, she turned back into a human, and we kissed. (It was a slow, slow kiss, and the audience went dead-silent for it.)
I got caught by the sultan and put to death. I think the wife was put to death, too.
And then we were both reincarnated as birds. At this point, the Avi-sultan objected to the story: "Isn't this story supposed to include a baby?" (Frame-story characters are very useful for making quick repairs to the inner story.) Ah, yes -- and those two birds stole away a baby from the sultan, and eventually dropped it in the mountains, where the thieves found it.
The sultan and Kayla took the baby, and the three of them headed off to the fire tree. The sultan made Kayla take one of the apples -- recall, only someone pure of heart could pluck the fruit -- and Kayla took it, unharmed. Then somehow the sultan got knocked unconscious, and the spirit of the fire tree decided to keep the sultan for herself.
Hey, fire tree's got needs, yo.
So Kayla made the long journey home, with a baby and a golden apple in tow. (Side note: Madi has an eerie ability to vocalize baby noises.) She encountered a rich, jolly pepper merchant on her way home, and they camped together for a night (no, not like that -- get your mind out of the gutter, people). He asked Kayla to tell him a story.
So she told him a story about a rug mechant (me) who was this rich, fashionable, trim guy beloved of all the ladies in the town. I know, I know: typecasting.</regrettably_untrue> Then I was betrayed by my brother (Marc) who burned my ship down. (I had so much fun here, jumping up and down ineffectually while Marc threw more flaming oil at the boat.) Then I had to give Marc all my finery, as well as my fancy hat, and work for him as his slave.
So there I was, beating rugs for Marc. At first I put a bunch of rugs in a big pile and hit them with a stick. Marc gently suggested that this process works better if the rugs are hanging from something. I then encountered Madi, a beautiful lady interested in buying rugs. She then went off with my brother. They flirted up a storm while I beat the rugs in frustration (not a euphemism), and off they went.
But! it turned out that Madi was actually an assassin sent by the sultan! And so Marc landed center stage, stone dead. Then Madi patiently yanked her dozen or so blades from Marc's body, and stowed them away on her person.
Then Madi and I encountered each other again, decades later, and we stared at each other all googly-eyed again. She invited me back to her place. I said I could set her up with some nice rugs.
And then it was back to Kayla, travelling back to her father, the vizier. It turned out the vizier was an *evil* vizier (as are many viziers), and he kept the apple for himself! Then there was a great thunderstorm...
... and at this moment, one side of the crowd thumpthumped their feet on the ground like the patter of rain. The other side blew "whooosh" like the howling wind. Julie (who was Shahrazad) was thrown by this for a moment -- nobody cued it, it came out of nowhere -- but quickly collected her wits and said, "And then there was a bright bolt of lightning!"
"BOOM!" shouted the Best Audience Ever.
And I think Shahrazad left things hanging right there. And no matter how Shahryar begged and pleaded, the sun was rising, and Shahrazad needed to rest. So she survived for one more night.
After allowing Shahryar and Shahrazad a tender moment together, I took the stage again and brought us back to the wedding reception. I recounted the end of that last scene between Shahryar and Shahrazad. I told the groom, Farouk, not to be like Naveen, taking everything for himself. (This was especially apt, because Andreas had played both those roles.) I told the bride, Malik, not to be like the "Sultan of Cairo" (at this point I imitated the booming cadence Avi had always used for that phrase), forcing people do his greedy bidding.
And then I told everyone how Shahrazad had survived in this fashion for a thousand and one nights, and at the end of that, Shahryar was cured of his madness. "... and afterwards, they had a love as broad as the ocean, and as everlasting as the bright stars." Back to the happy couple: "And let He who never changes grant that there be no sickness, no pain, no calamity, that you cannot address and ease with your patience and love." I was a bit choked up. "Insha'Allah," I said.
I took a deep breath, and I looked out at the assembled guests. "Are not these two well-matched?"
"Yes!" cheered the guests.
"Is this not a great community to celebrate their love?!"
"YES!" cheered the guests.
"IS LOVE NOT A GREAT AND GLORIOUS THING?!"
"YES!" cheered the guests.
"AND WERE WE NOT PROMISED *MUSIC*?!"
I gestured broadly at the tech booth and Audrey pressed play on "Chaiyya Chaiyya".
And we all started dancing. It felt odd for a moment, because there we were, partying around the stage without really including the audience. So I started clapping in time with the music, and within a couple of measures, the whole audience was clapping along.
We danced, and danced, and took our bows, and danced down the aisle through the crowd, and danced out into the lobby, and everybody hugged everybody with big, squeezy bear hugs.
And that was that.
It was one of the best improv shows I've ever had the privilege to do.
 I realized later on that this managed to reincorporate the 'imagine you are a great bird' bit from my opening narration.
 My saying that was kind of ironic, since I'd come down so firmly on the side of "let's just say 'God' instead of 'Allah'." It felt right in the moment.
Mood: joyful · Music: none