The first five to 19 minutes of the two-and-a-half hour Arabian Nights are almost dreadful enough to make an intermission exit a desirable option.

Then the laughter starts. For the rest of Act 1 the volume of laughter builds so much that they ended up crying and struggling to breathe.

Director Evan Parry’s cast deserves the credit for throwing themselves into the select stories with such abandon. True, the humor fades in the second act, replaced by sadder tales, but this just serves to present a fuller experience. The evening ends with a deep and profound political statement about the effect of the current conflict in Baghdad. However, this statement takes no sides, merely serving to point out the changes that war can bring.

The costumes from Janine McCabe are as expected, bright and colorful. They cover a range of centuries, but remain fixed in the times of Scheherazade. The set is the most static of the season from the CofC, but works well within the framework of the 18 tales told in Mary Zimmerman’s script.

What’s best about this production is the choice of presentation made by Parry and his cast. He allows them a freedom of expression that enables them to bring modern movements and themes to the age-old tales. When Zimmerman’s script calls for two actors to improvise the contents of a discarded bag, the resulting list is much funnier and richer and more vibrant than anything she might have penned. It’s tempting to return to see how this one scene changes.

Unscripted movement is used to hilarious effect as well, with one all-male dance number so ridiculous it’s amazing the other actors on stage can avoid joining in the audience’s laughter.

The more famous tales about Aladdin and Sinbad and the 40 thieves are missing. The tales that remain are adult in nature. They are bawdy, lewd, or emotionally complex, delivering a version of the Thousand and One Nights that will not be found in Disney’s vaults any time soon.

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