Jason Grote is one of a generation of brainy new American dramatists — including Tracy Letts and Will Eno — who understand that to reach new audiences, political theater needs to move beyond moral indignation and outrage, past spoon-feeding an attitude. One key to going forward is looking backward into literature, fable and allegory.
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1001, an Arabian odyssey: Amol Shah (right), John Sloan and Monika Jolly
Grote’s 1001, now playing at Pasadena’s Theatre at Boston Court after premiering last year at the Denver Center Theatre Company, is a kaleidoscopic spin on The Arabian Nights, and careens from ancient Persia to modern Columbia University, with drop-in appearances by Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Dershowitz and Gustave Flaubert.
A wonderful cast of six play dozens of characters in director Michael Michetti’s finely tuned “orientalist” production of 1001. Michetti also designed the set, which consists of a few platforms rimmed by towering piles of books — sheaths of words that dwarf the characters below. Yes, this is a story about telling stories, not in the “Listen, my child, once upon a time” genre of sugary escapism, nor in the “Beware the woods” style of fables of a world fraught with danger. Michetti and Grote serve up melding worlds of ancient Persia and modern New York City in which dozens of somewhat flustered characters tackle as best they can those looming piles of literature that describe and define them — centuries of legends leading to preconceptions and prejudices that come from books so old that their words could be mistaken for DNA. The only thing that could dislodge those towering stacks is a terrorist blast, and it does. Some of those books come tumbling down. New stories are written from their ash. Constitutions reconsidered; who we are, redefined.
“You change the story of a person or a nation, and you change that person or that nation,” remarks Dahna (Monika Jolly), the Columbia student from Kuwait, seeking her MFA in literature. Shortly after Dahna meets Jewish student Alan (John Sloan) for the first time, he finds himself physically defending her from a Zionist heckler (SamYounis). Later, they survive sniper fire in Palestine. While Dahna seeks her independence in the USA, having moved in with Alan, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to a Saudi playboy in London, who courts her via the Internet. A friend of her father’s, he’s at the center of her family’s attempts to snag her into an arranged marriage.
“We’re trapped in this grand narrative,” explains Dahna to the wounded Alan, “and it’s like we’re trying to defy this narrative.”
In this work of epic beauty, the riveting Jolly and tender Sloan double as Scheherazade and the sultan, Shahriyar, who has solved the problem of adultery by beheading each of his virgin brides shortly after sex. Each morning brings a new wedding. Scheherazade saves herself by telling a series of interlocking stories, sustaining suspense, her husband’s attention and her own life by endlessly adding new threads.
When that bomb goes off, the young sultan receives word of an approaching army of marauders. And so, in the counterpoint of different eras, we see the eternal shapes of conquest, like the universal patterns in the network of veins that can be found in items as disparate as a forming embryo and a maple leaf.
In my meeting with Grote last week in a backstage office prior to the Pasadena opening, it was a struggle to get the 38-year-old playwright to express where he was coming from — other than Brooklyn. That’s where Grote lives with his wife, Lorraine Martindale, who just received her MFA in fiction from the New School.
“We have an extensive library,” Grote says.
References from that library marble the program notes, as well as the play itself. The characters in 1001 either appear in literature or know all about it. A personable, soft-spoken bearded fellow, Grote looks like the kind of guy who would teach creative writing and playwriting at Rutgers — which he does.
He doesn’t look like the kind of guy who has spent much of his blog space, on www.jasongrote.blogspot.com, railing against The New York Times in general, and drama critic Charles Isherwood in particular. He frequently accuses the Times of belittling New York’s huge off-off-Broadway scene (home to most NYC playwrights) by either failing to cover it or covering it with condescension. Isherwood recently weighed in with a respectful article on the relationships being forged between off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters, which Grote’s blog may or may not have influenced. Grote’s agent pitched a feature on 1001 to the Times when it was premiering in Denver last year. “We’re not interested in his work,” was the curt reply, claims Grote on his blog.
Grote speaks of being a “formalist,” of trying to move beyond habits he recognizes in former plays, and trying to break them, which is all well and good, but it’s a cerebral reply to the question of what moves him.
He ponders this for a moment.
“The reason I’m so cerebral is not dispassion but a surplus of passion. Here’s a two-part answer: On the one hand there’s the distancing thing, the alienation effect, like the TV comedy that’s winking at itself. I think that’s not about being unemotional. The winking allows me in emotionally, whereas a melodrama leaves me cold — not because we live in this hyperironic, cool culture. I think it’s because we’re surrounded by too much meaning. Tragedies in Burma or Darfur, we are so hyperaware of. A century ago, they wouldn’t have had to go so far to avoid those facts. Today, we’re facing one unfathomable tragedy after another. A realistic play about Darfur is probably going to be a well-intentioned mistake — telling us how we’re missing the truth about Darfur. The problem isn’t that people don’t know what’s happening, it’s that people know it too much and don’t know how to see it anymore.”
Among the paradoxes for an activist-playwright who loves literature is that the wisdom emerging from ancient texts leans toward lessons of predestiny and our powerlessness in the shadow of the gods. Playwrights Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill have spent their careers tugging against those literary predispositions, which is why Grote names them both as looming influences.
“I think it’s worth imagining a better world than what we have now, but I think it’s really a genuine act of imagination. I’m not interested in this cynical, Neil LaBute way of looking at the world. I’m much more interested in the flaws of people who are basically good, which is not Polyannaish — to take, say, two people involved in an interracial relationship. I’m interested in a well-meaning couple trying to make it work; the conflict is not in their racism but in the ways they’re running up against history. I’m interested in people who are trying to do good.”
For a dramatist who sharpened his teeth on the downtown New York theater scene (Grote ran the Writer-Director Lab at Soho Rep with Sarah Benson for many years) and its penchant for reactive experimentation and surrealism, Grote has insights that speak more to the character contradictions one would find in traditionalists from Sophocles and Ibsen to Chekhov; from Arthur Miller to August Wilson.
“I don’t think that we’ve just survived because we’re cunning and ruthless and have opposable thumbs,” Grote adds. “It’s because we’ve learned how to organize societies and care for the weakest among us.”
1001 | By JASON GROTE | Presented by THEATRE @ BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through June 8 | (626) 683-6883