Words hurt — "I hate you." Words heal — "I'm sorry."
Words forge connections and build treaties and obfuscate, too. They weave stories that become commonplace, "The weather..." and tales which become epic — "The Story of the First Sheyk and the Gazelle," "The Story of Es-Sindibad of the Sea and Es-Sindibad of the Land," "The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves."
Words become the story, passed down over thousands of years, of Scheherazade, the wife of the killer king, who saved herself by telling her husband a thousand and one nights worth of enthralling tales.
"So many things attracted me, there's this particular combination of strange mystery and it's really surprising and poetic and kind of weird." Target Margin Theater founding artistic director David Herskovits and his troupe are known for "aggressive interpretations of classic texts, lesser-known works, and new plays inspired by existing sources."
For more than a quarter century, Target Margin, currently based in Brooklyn, has produced 11 world premieres, eight company-created works, three U.S. premieres, and five new translations.
There's an inherent sense of responsibility for the theater, even with folklore as ancient as The Thousand and One Nights, to preserve the integrity of the original (or close to original) text. Words obfuscate, and the hand mars.
Like a game of telephone, the collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folk tales in The Thousand and One Nights has taken on a life of its own, being altered ever so slightly with each interpretation. Today, we may conjure up images of a magic carpet and shoulder-riding monkeys. In fact, Aladdin, the man and the story, was not conceived of in the ninth century with the (close to) original text. The earliest versions of The Thousand and One Nights/The Arabian Nights/Alf laylah wa laylah, did not mention any young man and wise-cracking genie sidekick.
Herskovits shares that it was not until at least the 1700s that Aladdin became part of the canon. "One thing that's important [to remember], for these stories there's no authoritative text, it's just a product of Europeans who started translating in the 18th and 19th centuries," says Herskovits.
"Some of the stories which are called the Orphan Tales are not in the manuscript. [In the 18th century] A Frenchman found a Syrian guy in Paris and said 'I need some more stories for this book.' And he sat with him for a dozen visits that spring and the guy just told him notes, he was from Aleppo where there's a great tradition of storytelling."
Herskovits says his cast of five actors and "sound demons" are all given equal status once they take the stage. "There's a live mix of microphones, everyone is interacting with each other, the feeling I hope is there are a bunch of people who've come to join us and we're going to make this exciting event happen," he says.
Pay No Attention to the Girl will play at Woolfe Street Playhouse Wed. May 29-Sat. June 1. The actors will embody the brave and cunning Scheherazade in the intimate theater space.
"She's telling stories to him [the king] on the hook to save her own life. It's this brutal situation in a way; that's what we want to do with the audience, lull you into this dream," says Herskovits.
One of the core threads of The Thousand and One Nights is the interaction between the sexes, specifically, sexual relations. The collection includes tales of men and women who deceive and deny and lure — Scheherazade's husband marries and kills a new wife daily until she comes along.
Today, in a time when the tumultuous power play between man and woman is no longer concealed behind rattling doors and taut smiles, tackling this subject — in a responsible way — is more important, and necessary, than ever.
But interpreting sensitive material is nothing new for Herskovits. He knows the risks, and the rewards. He says when associate artistic director Moe Yousuf brought him the text as potential source material in 2015, he knew it was ripe for the theater's modus operandi.
"The reason we wind up reinterpreting, is we take stuff that people think they know, but they don't really look at the original ... you bring it into the light in new ways. This document of Silk Road culture is fascinating and timely and is truly about the handing over of storytelling from language to language, culture to culture."
Words hurt and heal — words penned long ago, in lands far away, their exact origin perhaps lost forever, hurt the most. What did the writer really mean? Will we ever know? What have we lost?
"If you're going to rework the material you're trying to let it speak for itself, confidently remake it," says Herskovits. "You're always going to wind up breaking it down and converting it in different ways. The challenge is to do it in a way that is meaningful. What I believe great art does, it hits us because it is more twisted, it comes at things side wise ... what makes something artistically resonate is the way it skews those things, you're constantly tilting what you're doing."