Rosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night, a riff on the Persian fable of Scheherazade, draws audiences into what program notes describe as “an immersive tour through a world of ritual violence and exquisite pleasure.”

Layla Means Night (Dancer: Carin Noland) © Jose Diaz
Layla Means Night (Dancer: Carin Noland)
© Jose Diaz

We were told to wear sensible shoes.

The audience of approximately 70 is split into three groups – men, women and a co-ed group – and, after a ritual purification – our hands washed by beaming young maidens in long silky gowns in the lobby of the spunky ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission district – we are guided through a series of tableaux throughout the building. The groups occasionally overlap but do not see the same scenes, or see them from different perspectives. When the men show up in the same room as the women, the women are instructed to cover the lower part of their faces with paper fans.

Charismatic actors Niloufar Talebi, Gabriella Rhodeen, and C. Derrick Jones III recall for us the underlying tale of a murderous king who, enraged by his first wife’s infidelity, marries a virgin every night and has her beheaded the next morning to protect himself from future betrayals. Until he marries Scheherazade, who adroitly spins an exciting tale each night but refuses to reveal the climax until the next day – which guarantees her survival, as long as she can keep coming up with cliff-hangers.

Talebi archly draws a parallel to all experiences of theatre, which can be summed up as a heroic attempt by actors and dancers to keep audiences – and critics – from killing them.

Delightful and surreal moments abound, particularly in those scenes viewed through tiny portals cut into cloth or paper tents, with the performers inside the tent, and along narrow corridors created by hanging curtains through which the dancers appear then vaporize. To witness this dance at such close quarters is a visceral thrill.

Overall, however, the experience is logistically over-engineered, and fails to create the desired tension and otherworldly atmosphere. Even when we hear a cock crowing, the screams of bloody murder and the thud of a hatchet, the effect seems no more gruesome than listening to a domestic spat in the apartment next door. The building layout provided a set design challenge; having to traipse up and down stairwells and backtrack through dance studios made it difficult to sustain a suspension of disbelief. This kind of theatre is more effectively executed in a single-level warehouse-type setting, with fewer walls, where traffic patterns can be streamlined and a consistent lighting design can be employed.

The other weakness lay in the text, which lacked drama and a consistent voice. Much of the dialogue was pedestrian, and could have come straight out of a modern-day television situation drama. The story-telling itself veered from breathless to humdrum, and poetry was recited, to little effect.

The moments in which dance took over the story-telling verged on the magnificent, in a style that gave off whiffs of Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Pilobolus, and Sonya Tayeh without enslaving itself to any tradition. The virtuosic women of Gamson’s company looked sleek and seductive in silky blood red gowns by Lilia Lopez that bowed to Halston, their throats painted bright red, their long hair loose and artfully tousled.

The tiny but fearsome Carin Noland, also in a red gown but without a red throat, wielded a butcher’s cleaver for most of the evening, clearly in the executioner role – though, in the lobby before curtain time, she was, hilariously, hacking oranges for the fresh orange juice that was served to the audience. It was a stroke of genius to portray the executioner as one of the king’s wives, evoking female complicity in the oppression of women not just in the time of the mythic Sheherazade but right up to the present.

The atmospheric score, composed and performed live by Houman Pourmehdi, Pirayeh Pourafar, and vocalist Alireza Shahmohammadi, features a mix of electronic and traditional instruments, and is augmented very effectively by the husky breathing and grunting of the dancers. ODC’s company of spirited teen dancers, known as ODC Dance Jam, melded seamlessly into the ensemble.

By far the most beguiling episode of the evening took place in the main theatre, where the men were seated and blindfolded. Young dancers knelt behind them, whispering into their ears, while the brides in red with their bloodied throats wove their way through the rows of seats in a seductive dance, their legs and arms encircling and coming very close to the men but not touching them. These brides recalled the terrifying Wilis in Giselle, those ghostly spirits of dead girls who, jilted by their lovers, died before their weddings. Meanwhile, Talebi marched slowly and impressively up the centre aisle, cleaver in hand, passed it off to Khodeen, who marched back down with it. This spectacle was witnessed by the women in the audience, who stood at the apron of the stage, looking up at the blindfolded men. Gamson makes a potent statement about the chasm between men and women’s perceptions of the world, and the nature of power.