February 24, 2016

“When Dawn Breaks” Offers a Grab Bag of Intriguing Stories, But You Have to Explore Theatre Intime on Foot to Find Them

Theater revWhen Dawn Breaks, an original play created and directed by Princeton University sophomore Nico Krell, is based on 1,001 Nights, but this is an “immersive” theater experience, so you will surely get less, and more, than you expect, as the actors lead you out of your seat, onto the stage, under the stage, into dressing rooms, workroom, hallways, greenroom, lobby, and every corner of the Hamilton Murray Theater.

You will encounter, at least in part, the familiar story of Scheherazade and the brutal King Shahryar, who, in anger at his first wife’s infidelity is determined to marry a new bride each day and execute her at dawn. But after three years, Scheherazade offers herself to the king and tells him a bedtime story so captivating that he decides to postpone the execution so that he can hear the end the next day, and the stories continue for 1,001 nights.

There’s little evidence here of the stories Scheherazade tells — “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” — that make up the original 1,001 Nights (sometimes called The Arabian Nights), but the story of Scheherazade (Anna Zabel); King Shahryar (Tom Dowling); her sister Dunyazade (Anastasia Repouliou); her father Jafar, who is the king’s vizier (Daniel Krane); the king’s brother Shah Zaman (Jake Hamel); Delilah, the ghost of the king’s former wife (Julia Mosby); and Azraq, a genie (Glenna Yu), is richly developed during the 70-minute production. 

Mr. Krell and his committed, capable young troupe of seven flesh out the violent, romantic tale in numerous different performance spaces in the theater, as the audience freely chooses which performers to follow and which performance space to observe. This production is full of intense relationships: between brothers, between sisters, between father and daughter, between the king and his vizier, between the king’s ghostly wife and the living characters, between the king’s brother and Scheherazade’s sister — and then there’s the alluring, mysterious genie.

Immersive theater, apparently in vogue now with several different productions taking place at a variety of untraditional venues in New York City, by nature breaks down the wall between performer and audience. It demands participation by the audience, merges art forms, and offers a different, non-traditional approach to the telling of the story. The audience members here must put together the story from whatever fragments they can pick up during their journey through the different parts of the theater, but, only being in one place at a time, they will miss whatever is going on simultaneously in the other parts of the theater. What each audience member sees, hears, and experiences — not to mention thinks, feels, and understands — is always unique, even in the most traditional productions, but here those differences are more obvious.

When Dawn Breaks starts with a brief introduction during which a passionate bedroom scene takes place on stage followed by the execution of the bride. There is a subtle romantic exchange between Dunyazade and Shah Zaman in one aisle, Sheherazade reminisces briefly in the other aisle, and the wife’s ghost tells us the rules: no cell phones, no recording, “we are all your storytellers … wander the space … follow what interests you most,” but “do not touch the performers.” Then the actors summon us from our seats and the immersive journey begins.

On opening night last Friday, I was summoned by the genie Azraq, who led me, with two other spectators, onto the stage, into the wings, down a narrow staircase, and down a narrow dead-end hallway to a large sink filed with flowers and a countertop covered with a variety of containers filled with aromatic herbs and liquids that Azraq invited us to smell. A skilled dancer, dressed all black Ms. Yu’s Azraq was a captivating host, remaining silent, but leading and communicating with lithe movements and swirling hands (large eyes painted on the palms) and arm gestures.

As we sniffed the various offerings, periodically we heard loud, anguished shrieks from elsewhere in the building. Azraq then led us out of the hallway through a workroom for set-building, past dressing rooms, up another narrow staircase into the outer lobby where Jafar was kneeling on the floor blindfolded. Azraq proceeded to tie him up and drip hot wax onto his chest. Was this torture or pleasure, or both? We left him writhing on the floor. When we returned to this room later, there were books and papers strewn around, but no sign of Jafar.

Back downstairs Azraq encountered the ghost Delilah at a large table in the workroom and they played with a bag of coins. There was an apple and a brass lamp on the table. Dunyazade entered and there was a romantic exchange between Azraq and Dunyazade before Dunyazade fled with Delilah. The exchanges were mostly silent, but intense, sensuous, fearful. Throughout the evening there was a variety of music, strange sound effects, and more shrieks heard periodically.

I decided to follow other performers and observed many other equally cryptic interactions in different dressing rooms and elsewhere in the building. At one point the audience groups were brought back to the main theater stage to observe an abbreviated, highly dramatic, stylized, performance of Iphigenia in Aulis, with obvious violent and romantic parallels to the Scheherazade story, as Agamemnon delivered his daughter Iphigenia to be sacrificed at her wedding. Then the actors took the audience downstairs one more time before finally returning to the main stage for the final scene.

In his director’s notes in the program, Mr. Krell describes his interest in immersive theater, “To have the choice to turn a corner and discover a story all on my own made me feel empowered to explore and have a stake in the story.” He explains the particular allure of the story of Scheherazade with its reliance on the magic of storytelling. ”Imagining having to tell a story so captivating that it saves your life — I can think of little else more terrifying. And so, thinking about her terror, her commitment, her desperation, the connection became clear to me. An immersive production could captivate an audience the way that Scheherazade would have needed to tell her stories.”

When Dawn Breaks — at least the parts of it I experienced, as Azraq and others led me through the rooms and hallways of Hamilton Murray Theater — does succeed in engaging, often captivating its audience. It does create moments that are memorable, haunting. It does force its audience to become involved in putting together the stories of Scheherazade, King Shahryar and others. The adventure of immersion in When Dawn Breaks is interesting and challenging, but certainly also frustrating.

Mr. Krell has drawn on a wide variety of literary, film and musical sources beyond the 1001 Nights — from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear, from classical music to 1950s doo-wop. And, along with his excellent cast and strong production team — choreographer Rachel Schwartz, stage designer Annabel Barry, lighting designer Megan Berry, costume manager Emma Claire Jones, sound designer Hillel Friedman — he brings together a show jam-packed with interesting allusions and stories. Despite the necessarily fragmented nature of immersive theater, however, Mr. Krell and company might be wise to provide their audience with a bit more guidance and a few more reference points as they struggle to understand who these characters are and what is happening to them.

“You needed a story,” Sheherazade tells us at the end. “You needed a story so captivating, so depraved that you would be entertained. That you would be wrapped up in it, lost in it.” When Dawn Breaks does provide an entertaining, unusual theater experience, recommended for mature audiences who are willing to undergo some confusion and frustration as they work to assemble the pieces of this fascinating tale.

“When Dawn Breaks” will run for just one more weekend, February 26-27, with shows on Friday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m., 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/tickets for information.