Spoleto 2019 » Theater

'Pay No Attention to the Girl' is a stunning testament to the power of stories

Truth is stranger

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"Hello, I'm David Herskovits." The words ring out in Woolfe Street Playhouse. The milling audience turns to face a young woman, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, standing on a raised plywood platform. She continues to speak.

Cassidy, one of the members of Pay No Attention to the Girl's ensemble, is assuredly not David Herskovits, the show's director. From the get, we've been invited to open our minds to the possibility of truths coming in forms we're not used to. 

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And then we are asked to take our seats.

The ensemble takes the floor of the theater and the audience makes their way into stadium-style seating, outfitted with couches, chairs, bean bags. The floor is covered in steel chairs, plastic flowers strewn over them. There are dangling Edison bulbs, bowls of faux flower petals, neon strands of LED lights.



One of the production's "sound demons," Jesse Freedman (wearing a pair of hand-crafted devil ears) sits at the bottom of the audience seating, in charge of all audio components of the show: The voices of the ensemble — whispered, or shouted, or sung — are critical to the production, as are the songs and sounds. A coin clinking, glass breaking.

Pay No Attention to the Girl is based on The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of ancient folklore from the Middle East and India. (The story of Aladdin, by the way, wasn't added until the 1700s). You certainly don't need to know anything about The Thousand and One Nights, also called The Arabian Nights and, in Arabic, Alf laylah wa laylah to enjoy this show, but if you want a refresher, Britannica offers a great overview.

King Shahryar, after discovering that his wife has been unfaithful, decides he hates all women and marries and kills a new wife each day until his vizier's (a high official in some Muslim countries) daughter, Scheherazade, offers herself up as a wife. Scheherazade tells the king a story every night, leaving it unfinished and leaving him wanting more, saving herself again and again. The power of stories, right?

With this basic premise laid out, the ensemble cast performs a variety of roles — you're forced to pay attention to their words to figure out who they are in any given moment — and reenacts many of the tales Scheherazade tells the king.

The play is at times laugh-out-loud funny with anachronistic references thrown in — "game recognize game" — and continually fast-paced.

We, the audience, are King Shahryar. The ensemble draws us in, keeping us enthralled, committed to their tales, a collective representation of Scheherazade.

As funny as the show can be, it can be just as devastating. Most of the tales tell of interactions between men and women. Hijinks ensue, sure. But then there's the tale as old as time: When women best men, those men are left humiliated. When men best women, those women are raped or killed.

After one scene, several of the ensemble members whisper, "He deflowered her." Ensemble member Deepali Gupta slowly comes out from behind a shimmering curtain. The old man she assumed harmless raped her. No one speaks for several moments.

And then things continue as fluidly as before, no one missing a beat. You remember, though, the power of that one story. It resides equally in your mind with the story that made you laugh. They sit uncomfortably next to one another. That's just how stories work.

While Pay No Attention to the Girl is sold out for the rest of its Spoleto run (no surprise there if you know the talents of Target Margin Theater and the incredible space that is Woolfe Street), those of you without tickets can still feel its impact.

Read up on The Thousand and One Nights. Maybe the words feel old, sticky, stuck. Maybe, though, they resonate. People fall in love. People are hurt. Life is messy and wonderful and if we're lucky, long.

And stories, well, they last even longer. How beautiful is that?

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