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Dreamland Arts tells folktales that are raunchy, violent, and joyfully twisted

Tony Nelson

Tony Nelson

Before going to see Sunrise at Midnight, check your expectations regarding what a staging of folktales might look and feel like.

Dreamland Arts LLC
$10-$20

Sure, there’s a curse and there’s a trickster and there’s true love — but there’s also a virility wager, cinematic intercutting among scenes, and an HBO GO subscription (or at least a reference to one).

The inspiration for Sunrise at Midnight was a series of adult folktales from Algeria, the homeland of show creator Taous Claire Khazem’s father. In a program note, she describes the stories as “raunchy, violent, and full of twists and turns” — a reminder to American audiences of just how much our own folktales have been sanitized, weaponized, and finally ironized. The stories in Sunrise at Midnight feel fresh, not just because they’ll be unfamiliar to most viewers but because they’re complex and ambiguous and amusing.

This unusual and entertaining show, presented at the tiny Dreamland Arts theater in the Midway neighborhood, stars an ensemble of Khazem and four other performers. It’s physical theater, presented on a bare stage. This kind of storytelling is difficult to do well, but it’s an Algerian tradition that’s also a regional specialty in the Twin Cities. Under the direction of Ryan Underbakke, the actors are tight and expressive.

We’re introduced to a few different stories, which branch off in unexpected directions and ultimately come together in a conjunction underscored by composer Aaron Gabriel’s music, also performed by the ensemble, who sing and make use of a couple of onstage instruments.

Though the tales originated in Algeria, there are few specific details tying them to that setting, which is further scrambled by the storytellers’ seemingly anachronistic references to things like solar panels and shag carpeting. The stories are irreverent, but not jokey: the performers can sustain a mood of reverie as easily as a raucous moment of revelry or a comic interlude of sexual exhaustion.

Yes, sexual exhaustion. One of the protagonists is a horny and dopey dude played by Khazem, who has a series of misadventures including an ill-advised bet that he can copulate dozens of times before day’s end. He finally finds true love with a coyly seductive mate, and Theo Langason’s dry performance in that role is the show’s comic highlight.

Then there’s a lucky guy (Heather Bunch) who finds a magical flute in a fish; and a prince (Nora Montañez) whose survival costs a friend (Mohammed Yabdri) his life. Of course, life in these tales is always negotiable, with much of the wheeling and dealing done by a creepy old guy (also Yabdri) who emerges from the bushes to tempt travelers with trades for everything from pieces of gold to years of survival.

As the show progresses, the performers jump among stories with increasing rapidity, and it gets challenging to remember how things stand with each of the narratives. In the end, though, there’s a moment of clarity — for us, and for the characters — before the show ends and we’re reluctantly dragged back from the mountains of Algeria to the streets of St. Paul. 

IF YOU GO:

Sunrise at Midnight
Dreamland Arts
677 Hamlin Ave. N., St. Paul
7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays
Through July 30
Click here for tickets