“Three Impossible Questions,” opening Friday at Olympia Family Theater, is a funny show full of ridiculous situations and jokes — and a thoughtful attempt to illuminate a piece of Islamic culture.
In a sense, the world-premiere play by Christian Carvajal of Olympia is a lot like its central character, the witty, wise and often sarcastic folk hero Mullah Nasreddin (Jon Lee), whose often silly stories and sayings generally have a deeper point to make. He may or may not be based on actual 13th-century Turk.
“He’s as well known as Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse in large expanses of the planet,” Carvajal told The Olympian, “but I had never heard of him. He’s this wiseacre character who teaches through jokes and through paradox. He’s a guy who is able to jab the culture a little bit from inside. I think we have a very fundamentalist idea of Muslims, and we don’t think of them as people who are able to do that.”
In the show, three visiting wise men present Nasreddin with three ridiculous questions, and his neighbors and friends get involved, telling stories about the Mullah and other folktales from Islamic cultures in between trying to figure out how to answer.
The result is a fast-paced 90-minute show.
“We have everything from grown adults acting like crocodiles to almost ‘Laugh-In’-style rat-a-tat-tat jokes,” Carvajal said. “We hope to follow the Pixar model of having something for everyone — but we have kept the content G-rated.”
It’s also a way for those unfamiliar with Muslims to learn something about them.
“In recent times, you hear not-so-positive things about Muslims and Islam,” said Nazmul Alam, one of several members of the Islamic Center of Olympia who reviewed the script during the production process. “I thought that people could get to know Muslims to a certain extent through comedy.”
And, Carvajal said, it was a way for him to learn, too.
The actor, director and writer, whose plays have been seen locally as part of “Improbable Peck of Plays,” started on the play a year ago, when President Trump issued an executive order banning travelers from several Muslim-majority countries.
He visited the Islamic Center of Olympia, which offers an open house on the first Friday of each month, and was moved by what he saw.
“I was really struck by how anxious everyone was there,” he said. “It was a very stressful time for good people who don’t deserve that. I thought, ‘What can I do to help?’ and what I can do is write and make theater.”
He thought of directing a piece by a Muslim playwright and then discovered that theater was not a big part of traditional Muslim culture. But literature was, and he got the idea to create a play based on Muslim folk tales. He pitched it to Olympia Family Theater, where artistic director Jen Ryle was enthusiastic. Ted Ryle, her husband, agreed to direct.
It came together when he discovered Nasreddin. “When I mentioned him to my new Bangladeshi friends at the mosque, their eyes lit up,” Carvajal said. “They all wanted to tell me a Nasreddin joke.”
There’s a huge amount of diversity among Muslims, said Mustafa Mohamedali, social secretary of the Islamic Center.
“We are probably the most diverse faith community in the South Sound,” he told The Olympian. “We have at last count around 39 different ethnicities and nationalities.”
He grew up in East Africa and wasn’t familiar with Nasreddin, but Alam, who’s from Bangladesh, had heard stories about the Mullah since childhood.
While they said they couldn’t speak for all members of the Islamic Center, Alam and Mohamedali are both excited about the play and plan to see it.
“It’s not often that we get an opportunity to experience theater that shows Muslims in a positive light or in a funny way,” Mohamedali said. “It’s even less often that we have the opportunity to be involved.”
He’s particularly excited that the cast includes a Muslim, Sy Khan. Khan hosts KAOS 89.3 FM’s “The Junglee Hour,” a Bollywood-focused program that broadcasts from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturdays. He heard about the play from a friend at The Evergreen State College.
It’s his first time acting, Khan said.
“What inspired me was the subject of the play,” he said. “It’s good to have a positive space and support for the Muslim culture. Sometimes these types of opportunities come about, and I wanted to take advantage of it.”
Khan plays multiple characters, as do most members of the cast, appearing as both Nasreddin’s neighbors and characters within the folktales.
The cast also includes Andrea Weston-Smart, Chuck Meares, Jack House, Jada Miller, Keith Eisner, Paul Parker, Peter Rushton, Ryan Martin Holmberg, Sara Thiessen, Savannah Renauldi, Serean Kim, Tom Sanders and Zachary Clark.
“It’s been quite an adventure,” Ted Ryle said. “We’re talking about 15 or 16 different stories within the play, so it’s a lot of moving parts.
“The folks who live in this village are telling the stories. They’re using found objects and are onstage most of the time, either taking part in the stories or watching.”
‘3 Impossible Questions’
What: Olympia Family Theater presents the premiere of Christian Carvajal’s play based on the adventures of the beloved spiritual jester Mullah Nasreddin and other folktales from Islamic cultures.
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, plus Feb. 8, 9, 15 and 16; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, plus Feb. 10, 11, 17 and 18
Where: Olympia Family Theater, 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Tickets: $13-$19; for the Feb. 8 performance, pay what you can.
More information: 360-570-1638, olyft.org
Islamic Center of Olympia open house
What: The center invites the community to observe or share in prayer and learn more about Islam and Muslims.
When: Noon-2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, and the first Friday of each month
Where: Islamic Center of Olympia, 4324 20th Lane NE, Olympia
More information: 360-200-5375, facebook.com/pg/IslamicCenterofOlympia