'Haroun and the Sea of Stories'

It's a play about the mythical "hero's journey," written by a man who lives under a fatwa — an Islamic judgment of condemnation — and acted out by Ashland High School students for the next two weeks.

Author Salman Rushdie's "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" is being performed with 36 fantastical masks and, says director and professional maskmaker James Peck of Ashland, "is about a young boy's journey, similar to 'Alice in Wonderland,' looking at extremes in a world out of balance."

The boy, Haroun, travels to Earth's second moon to retrieve "story waters," needed for his father, Rashid, to revive his masterful storytelling, which has been lost, says Peck. The play, he notes, comes from Rushdie's novel, his first written after enraging Islamic imams with his controversial 1988 book, "The Satanic Verses."

"It's phantasmagorical — a combination of fantasy and allegory — and it's redemptive, making comment on such themes as man's inhumanity to man, man's irresponsibility with nature and on the power of language when people aren't allowed to speak," says AHS drama teacher Betsy Bishop. "It's about the need for stories. It brings us together."

A master of the art of "magical realism," Rusdie tells "a personal and relatable story that's so far out there and that speaks to us (students) about growing up into adulthood," says Assistant Director Aurelia Grierson, an AHS senior.

Stage Manager Ford Murawski-Brown, a junior, calls the play "a happy marriage between light and shadow, reminding me that everything has two sides. It says we're moving from our childhood but our futures are still shadowy. I love the joy of it, despite the dark undercurrents — and it ends on a very light note."

Peck says he "fell in love" with the play while reading it to his son and admired Rushdie's "courage to create in magical realism" while under death threat by Islamic militants.

"It's a very inspiring story with a strong visual component," says Peck. "When I talked to parents (of actors), one asked if it would be picketed and I said, 'I hope so!'" In his production notes, Peck says, "Each night we (he and his son) would travel further into this wonder-filled adventure (and) would drink from the great Story Sea delivered to us by Rushdie's genie in a book. Then each night as we slept, we would travel on our own journeys, alone into that vast private universe of our dreams, a universe we all know and share but which is uniquely our own, filled with personal dangers."

His many masks, says Peck, "explore the many layers of dream, family, belief, light, dark, extremists, fanaticism and fantasy."

In addition to the evocative masks, the play features shadow puppetry, face painting, ensemble dance, battles and dramatic lighting shadow effects. It was written from the Rusdie novel by Tim Supple and David Tushingham.

It plays at 7:30 p.m. through May 7 and then May 12 through 14 at AHS Mountain Avenue Theater. A matinee is at 2 p.m. on May 15. Tickets are $10, $5 for students under 18 and seniors over 65. Buy tickets at www.showtix4u.com or Paddington Station, Music Coop or Tree House Books.

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