The inspiration for “One Night,” the nine-hour theatrical event at Target Margin Theater in Brooklyn, began about 3,000 nights ago. Or, to tell the story another way, it began more than 1,000 years ago when certain Middle Eastern and Indian folk tales first appeared in Arabic collections. “One Night” distills these nested tales, known as “One Thousand and One Nights” or the “Arabian Nights.” Some editions include dozens of tales; some hundreds. So when you think about it, nine hours isn’t very long at all.
“What it really is, for me, is an extended adventure in storytelling,” said David Herskovits, the artistic director of Target Margin, during a recent video call.
Target Margin, an Off Broadway stalwart, has told stories for more than 30 years, gaining a reputation for deconstructing complicated texts — Plato’s “Symposium”; Gertrude Stein’s plays; both parts of Goethe’s “Faust”— and offering them up again with colorful costumes, playful lights and stages bedecked in 99-cent store pizazz. For a company that bops cheerfully from German opera to Greek tragedy to Yiddish folklore, a lingering sojourn in the Middle East shouldn’t come as a particular surprise. But the company has never worked on a show over quite so many years or served quite so much food to audiences — fruit, pastries, popcorn, chocolate, tofu bowls, grape ceviche.
That work began about eight years ago with Moe Yousuf, then an associate artistic director, now an M.B.A. student (“He’s no fool,” Herskovits said). Even though the company was then enmeshed in a yearslong exploration of Eugene O’Neill, Yousuf took turns reading aloud “One Thousand and One Nights” with other members in the company’s office in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Herskovits didn’t think that anything would necessarily come of it. But he became fascinated by the stories and their complicated textual history.
“There is no text,” he said, excitedly. “What you have is a tradition of stories, layered over so many different languages, cultures, religions, geographical locations.”
As a longtime storyteller, he also savored the primacy of narrative within the stories — particularly the frame story. In this story, King Shahryar, outraged by the unfaithfulness of his wife, resolves to marry a virgin each night, bed her, then kill her before she has the chance to dishonor him. He kills some number of women until his vizier presents his own daughter, Scheherazade. On that first night — and for a thousand nights after — she tells a tale so enthralling that the king stays her execution so that she can continue.
“I always describe this process as: How many different ways can you play telephone?” the performer Anthony Vaughn Merchant, who joined in 2017, told me, referring to the children’s game in which players whisper a message to one another, transmuting the message as the game goes on.
None of these stories are played straight, not only because Target Margin has rarely confronted a text head on (please, it’s right there in the company’s name) but also because the stories themselves — with their sex and violence and exotic locales — invite Orientalist 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 began working with Target Margin in 2019, she worried how they would be told. “Are we going to say that all these Arab women need saving, which is mostly the narrative that I am afraid of, that Arab men are brutes and Arab women need saving?” she said during a recent video call.
But she soon learned that Target Margin emphasizes collaborative creation, which encourages conversation among the company members. “Something amazing about working with David is the possibility for dialogue constantly,” 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 liberties that the company took with them, as they told them anew.
“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 did purposely steer away from harem pants,” she said.
Pandemic closures paused these explorations. But during the pandemic’s second year, Herskovits felt the pull to return to these tales, with a totalizing show that would combine what the company had already created with new material, interpolating stories from other traditions and personal stories, too. That became the nine-hour “One Night.” For some performances, the company divides the material over two nights; other times they perform from afternoon toward midnight. A few performances run from dusk till dawn.
“That’s the dream,” Herskovits said of these overnight performances. “That’s what Scheherazade does.”
This is a challenge, of course, for the actors. When he first experienced the overnight performance, during a dress rehearsal, Vaughn Merchant found it exhausting. “It was like, Oh, this is rough,” he said. But it has since become easier. Now, he said, the hours fly 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 at having accomplished this.”
Herskovits wants liberation and joy for the audience, too. Which explains the food, as well as Carolyn Mraz’s cozy set, scattered with comfy sofas, beanbags and poufs. Breaks are encouraged. If someone were to fall asleep, that would be OK, too.
“That might even be great,” Herskovits said. “It’s like you’re a little kid, somebody’s telling you a story. That would be beautiful.”
On a rainy Saturday, I stopped into an afternoon-to-evening performance, settling into a buttercup sofa with a mug of herbal tea. An actress (actually an assistant director and stagehand, Kate Budney, gamely standing in for an absent performer) stopped by and told a small group of us the biblical story of Esther. Then the room reset for the tale of the porter and the three ladies of Baghdad, derived from the “Thousand and One Nights,” which had several other stories — dogs, a dervish, the wife-beating son of a caliph — smuggled inside.
The room reset again for the story of the seven voyages of Sindbad, during which tofu bowls (delicious!) were served. Then the cast took the stage at the far end of the room to discuss how Scheherazade, having borne King Shahryar three children and entertaining him for 1,001 nights, finally earned his pardon. (Which means she gets to stay married to a rapist and a serial killer. Happy endings are weird.)
“And this is the completion and the end of their story,” a performer said with brisk finality.
But, of course, it wasn’t. It was just after 7 p.m. The show had four more hours to go.