The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater co-present the return of what may prove to be the newest Yuletide tradition in Boston theater. "Arabian Nights" is back through Dec. 30 for an enchanting second run at Central Square Theater after having worked its magic on audiences last holiday season.
The play is based on "1001 Arabian Nights," the story (and stories) of Shahrazad (Evelyn Howe), the daughter of the Vizier (Alexander Cook) to King Shahrayar (Vincent Ernest Siders), a broken-hearted ruler taking his revenge against all womankind after his faithless wife betrays him. Shahrayar's anger is so great that he sets about marrying a new bride every evening, only to have her put to death in the morning. As the city loses daughter after daughter, civil discord spreads. Shahrazad, a gifted storyteller, determines to stop the bloodletting by marrying the king herself, and piquing his interest in the tales that she tells. (Wisely, she starts off by telling him a cliff-hanger.)
Each of Shahrazad's stories is a engaging work in and of itself, from comic yarns like "The Story of the Little Beggar" to adventures like "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves." But the stories contain critical elements that Shahrazad cleverly, and gradually, uses to create a new foundation of trust between herself and the king. In fables such as "The Story of the Envious Sisters," in which a King is duped by the sisters of his long-suffering wife while his infants are adopted by one of his servants, Shahrazad addresses blind regal rage and its consequences; in "Ali Baba," she reminds the king that women can be smart and loyal. Finally, after telling the king a story for 1,001 successive nights -- one for each young wife he married and then murdered -- Shahrazad heals the king's broken heart and restores him to his right mind, bringing peace and justice back to the land.
The ensemble -- Yavni Bar-Yam, Zena Chatila, Elbert Joseph, Ahmad Maksoud, Lindsey McWhorter, and Debra Wise -- portray multiple characters in the stories, as do Howe, Siders, and Cook. Quick changes abound, and the performances are as colorful as the costumes (by Leslie Held) and as dynamic as the movement and choreography (by Judith Chaffee). An extra touch of magic comes to this performance by way of David Fichter's puppets (Fichter also painted the colorful, mosaic-like performance space).
This play hits all the marks for pure visual dazzle and spellbinding presentation. There's a little violence, and a little rude language, and the running time is close to three hours, but this is the sort of play parents can bring their older children to and feel as rewarded as the kids when it comes to being a member of the audience. These stories are timeless, and they feel refreshed in Dominic Cooke's adaptation. Though this is not a Christmas story, you'll find plenty of magic here to brighten the holiday season.
"Arabian Nights" continues through Dec. 30 at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.
Tickets available online at www.centralsquaretheater.org or via phone at 617-576-9278
Performance schedule: Wednesdays at 10:00 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.