In The Arabian Nights, Princess Scheherazade subverts a debauched king’s nightly ritual of rape and murder by telling him stories. As Mark Vecchio interprets the tale, “The kingdom was becoming a wasteland, nothing had any meaning anymore. Her storytelling brings meaning and understanding and wisdom back.”
It’s that metaphor, of story as healer and teacher, that led Vecchio to name his company Scheherazade Theatre. “Stories are the meaning we give to our experiences and thoughts,” he says. And myths are the stories a culture tells about itself. Vecchio is interested in the mythic qualities of storytelling—fictions that reflect and reveal deep truths—and in plays that have compelling stories to tell in ways that go beyond mere narrative.
It was the mythic in Beth Henley’s Abundance that attracted him to it, Vecchio says. His production plays this weekend in Northampton. Less well known than the Pulitzer-winning Crimes of the Heart or The Miss Firecracker Contest, both of which became movies, this 1989 play, Vecchio thinks, has previously been underappreciated and misunderstood by audiences and critics.
The play focuses on two “mail-order brides” who travel to the Wyoming territory in the decade after the Civil War to begin new lives. Bess is looking for love and protection, while Macon craves a Wild West adventure. But the husbands they end up with deliver the opposite of these dreams. Jack is a mean, violent man who bullies Bess and stifles her identity, while Will is a kind, careful and boring widower who simply wants a sensible farm wife.
Abundance is a title rich in irony. The abundance all the characters dream of, both emotional and material, is illusory. And ironically, their lives ultimately take the paths of each other’s ambitions. Macon falls in love, helplessly and dangerously, and Bess is kidnapped by Indians, returning years later to “civilization” a different person. The men, too—Jack, whose grandiose schemes have always failed, and prudent, industrious Will—undergo a reversal of fortunes.
Vecchio finds mythic elements in the classical metaphor of Bess’s captivity, “the hero’s journey to the Otherworld,” the land of the Oglala Lakota, as well as in the play’s small-scale focus on timeless human ambitions—idealistic and impractical or cynical and self-serving—set within the expansive landscape and endless sky of the, yes, mythic old West. “As in the old myths, the play is about the things that are happening beyond our conscious control,” Vecchio says.
His cast of young actors, most of whom have appeared in previous Scheherazade productions and/or have been students of his at Simon’s Rock, includes Carissa Dagenais, Abigail Edber, Richard Vaden and Edward Ryan, with Rory Madden in a supporting role.
The production is intentionally minimalist, with a bare stage and non-literal props—wooden boxes for furniture and cylinders cut from tree branches for cups and jugs. This abstraction, Vecchio explains, is “in the service of the story and in order to foreground the human actor. Our kind of ‘experimental theater’ is about finding the fullest, most expressive ways of performing stories so as to peel away the barriers to meaning.”
Abundance: Sept. 16-18, Northampton Center for the Arts, 17 New South St., Northampton, (413) 584-7327, nohoarts.org.