The inspiration for “One Night,” the nine-hour theatrical event at Brooklyn’s Target Margin Theater, started about 3,000 nights ago. Or, to put the story in another way, it started more than 1,000 years ago when certain folktales from the Middle East and India first appeared in Arabic collections. “One Night” distills these nested stories, known as “One Thousand and One Nights” or the “Arabian Nights”. Some editions contain dozens of stories; several hundreds. So if you think about it, nine hours isn’t long at all.
“What it really is for me is an extended adventure in storytelling,” said David Herskovits, Artistic Director of Target Margin, during a recent video call.
Target Margin, an Off Broadway hero, has been telling stories for over 30 years and gained a reputation for deconstructing complicated lyrics – Plato’s “Symposium”; plays by Gertrude Stein; both parts of Goethe’s “Faust” – and re-offering them with colorful costumes, playful lights and stages decorated with 99 cent store pizzazz. For a company that jumps merrily from German opera to Greek tragedy to Yiddish folklore, a lengthy sojourn in the Middle East should come as no particular surprise. But the company has never spent so many years working on a show or serving so much food to the public — fruits, pastries, popcorn, chocolate, tofu bowls, grape ceviche.
That work began about eight years ago with Moe Yousuf, then an associate artistic director, now an MBA student (“He’s no fool,” Herskovits said). Though the company was then entangled in a years-long exploration of Eugene O’Neill, Yousuf took turns reading “One Thousand and One Nights” with other members at the company’s office in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Herskovits didn’t think anything would necessarily come of it. But he became fascinated by the stories and their complicated textual history.
“There’s no text,” he said excitedly. “What you have is a tradition of storytelling, layered across so many different languages, cultures, religions, geographic locations.”
As an old storyteller, he also enjoyed the primacy of story within the stories – especially the window story. In this story, King Shahryar, indignant at his wife’s infidelity, decides to marry a virgin every night, sleep with her and then kill her before she has a chance to dishonor him. He kills a number of women until his vizier presents his own daughter, Scheherazade. That first night—and a thousand nights after that—she tells a story so captivating that the king postpones her execution so she can move on.
“I always describe this process as: How many different ways can you make a phone call?” the artist Anthony Vaughn Merchant, who joined in 2017, told me, referring to the childhood game in which players whisper a message to each other and transmute the message as the game progresses.
None of these stories are played directly, not only because Target Margin has rarely dealt directly with any text (please, it’s there in the company’s name), but also because the stories themselves – with their sex and violence and exotic locations – inviting oriental perspectives. And many of the stories, including the frame story, promote a misogynistic worldview.
Rawya El Chab, an actress of Lebanese descent, grew up with these stories. When she started working with Target Margin in 2019, she was concerned about how they would be heard. “Are we going to say that all these Arab women need to be saved, which is usually the story I’m afraid of, that Arab men are brutal and Arab women need to be saved?” she said during a recent video call.
But she soon learned that Target Margin emphasizes collaborative creation, which encourages conversation among company members. “Something great about working with David is the ability to engage in constant dialogue,” she said.
Dina El-Aziz, a costume designer of Egyptian descent who first worked with Target Margin in “Pay No Attention to the Girl,” also knew these stories from childhood. And she appreciated the freedoms the company brought with them, as they told them again.
“We’re not doing an accurate retelling of ‘One Thousand and One Nights,'” she said. “It’s a bunch of people in a garage in Brooklyn.” She let this approach inform the costumes. “I purposely moved away from harem pants,” she said.
Pandemic closures paused these explorations. But during the second year of the pandemic, Herskovits felt the urge to return to these stories, with a totalizing show that would combine what the company had already created with new material, also interpolating stories from other traditions and personal stories. That became the nine-hour long ‘One Night’. For some performances, the company divides the material over two evenings; other times they perform from noon to midnight. A few performances run from dusk to dawn.
“That’s the dream,” Herskovits said of these nighttime performances. “That’s what Scheherazade does.”
That is of course a challenge for the actors. When he first witnessed the nighttime performance, in a dress rehearsal, Vaughn Merchant found it exhausting. “It was like, oh, this is rough,” he said. But it’s gotten easier since then. Now, he said, the hours are flying by.
El Chab agreed. “You feel tired at the end,” she said, “but you feel a sense of liberation, you feel a sense of joy for having achieved this.”
Herskovits also wants liberation and joy for the public. That explains the food, as well as Carolyn Mraz’s cozy set, dotted with comfy couches, beanbags, and poufs. Breaks are encouraged. If one were to fall asleep, that would be fine too.
“That could even be great,” Herskovits said. “It’s like being a little kid, someone is telling you a story. That would be nice.”
On a rainy Saturday, I stopped in for an afternoon to evening performance, sitting on a buttercup bench with a mug of herbal tea. An actress (actually a stagehand, Kate Budney, playfully taking the place of an absent performer) came by and told a small group of us the biblical story of Esther. Then the room was reset for the tale of the porter and the three ladies of Baghdad, derived from the “One Thousand and One Nights,” in which there were several other tales – dogs, a dervish, the woman who was the son of a caliph beat – who were smuggled in.
The hall was reset again for the story of the seven journeys of Sindbad, where tofu bowls (delicious!) were served. Then the cast took the stage across the room to discuss how Scheherazade, who had given birth to three children to King Shahryar and entertained him for 1001 nights, finally earned his pardon. (Which means she stays married to a rapist and a serial killer. Happy endings are weird.)
“And this is the completion and the end of their story,” said one performer firmly.
But of course it wasn’t. It was just after 7pm. The show still had four hours to go.