It seems director Jake Groshong couldn't decide whether he wanted to stage a traditional version of Scheherazade's Middle Eastern fables or something more avant-garde. Instead he created a madcap and macabre mess, lurching from a sort of Marx Brothers' Night in Casablanca to the real deal and back again. It's only a suggestion, but next time it might be best to leave the hookah alone until closing night. In Groshong's reworking of a script by Mary Zimmerman, these vignettes of morality, sexuality, madness, greed, and erudition are sometimes staged as written, and sometimes as mere departure points for flights into pop culture. And since some tales are told as strictly as if they were read from a scroll, it can be head-spinning to hear references to Hostess Twinkies and other bits of modern detritus tossed in for a cheap laugh. Imagine Mel Brooks or the cast of The Aristocrats being invited in to direct a scene or two, then just as quickly shown the door. Groshong also allows some actors to play their roles broadly enough to make Benny Hill wince, while others maintain a regal bearing and convey a concentrated sensuality and dignity throughout. Since this really is many plays within a play, that concept might have worked—to let the tableaus run amok while Scheherazade and those outside the fables maintain their reality in bygone Persia. But here you'll find grape Kool-Aid in the grape leaves and baloney in the tabouli. Sometimes it's zany entertainment, but it never makes much sense. Allison Strickland is spellbinding as the stemwinder Scheherazade, while Ashley Bagwell and Curtis Eastwood serve up their respective roles with the sort of cookie-cutter masculinity we haven't seen since Robert Goulet and Omar Sharif were matinee idols. Terri Weagant is so ethereally captivating in her central role as Sympathy the Learned that she nearly redeems the evening. Jason Harber is certainly having a blast in many of his roles, but his rolling eyes, gaping mouth, and incessant roar have no more connection to Middle Eastern folklore than Disney's Aladdin. So there are some great performances that run the gamut from heartbreaking to outrageous and horrific, but the spice of variety here is meant to be in the stories, not in an unwieldy ensemble.
Balagan Theatre, 1117 E. Pike St., 800-838-3006, www.balagantheatre.org. $15–$20. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 8.