Arabian Nights’ epic tales reveal prosaic and timely gems of wisdom
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
As we watch actors splash around in a giant pool in “Twelfth Night” or fly above our heads in “Mary Poppins,” it’s easy to forget theatre’s humble origins. Storytelling is a worldwide fascination of all cultures and times, currently manifesting itself in Hollywood films, blogs (like the one you’re reading at this moment), and, of course, theatre. Keeping grandiose Greek works and Shakespearean epics in mind, playwright and director Mary Zimmerman explores theatre’s ritualistic and narrative roots in her plays. In her play “The Arabian Nights,” she dramatizes a thousand year old non-Western text, “1,001 Arabian Nights.” This is not merely a simple adaptation for the stage. The Lookingglass team performs in an array of ways, tossing into “Arabian Nights” the elements of a World Music concert, dance show, gymnastic event, improv performance, and a really long fart joke, as well as an insightful dramatic piece.
This is the third Lookingglass production of founder Zimmerman’s Near East epic. Each production coincided with a volatile period of American relations with the Islamic world, especially Iraq. The play premiered in 1992, directly after the first Gulf War. The second Lookingglass production took place in 1997, concurrent with Clinton’s order of air strikes on Iraq. Twelve years later, we are reminded of our involvement in Iraq every day.
It’s nice to hear the names of places usually only heard on the nightly news—Iran, Basra, Cairo—in a positive light. I was reminded that when “1,001 Arabian Nights” was first written down in Arabic, the Muslim world was the most advanced society in the world, while Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages.
Zimmerman completely embraces the idea of narrative. The frame of the play is the story of King Shahryar (Ryan Artzburger) and the young Scheherezade (Louise Lamson). Betrayed by his wife, the King marries, loves, and murders a different girl every night. The night Scheherezade’s number comes up, she decides she’ll attempt to delay his knife by entertaining his ear with her trove of stories. This works, and her flair for narrative keeps her head on her shoulders night after night after night. Her yarns range from short, funny tales to sprawling epics exploring love, death, and morality, and all of them are performed for us by the diversely talented cast. On top of Scherezade’s storytelling, many of the characters in her tales relate stories of their own. Because of the multiple stories-within-stories, the whole play is richly layered and complex. Some are childish, some are sexy, some are heartbreaking, all are thought-provoking. On a more or less bare stage covered with Persian rugs (proudly provided by Oscar Isberian Rugs, according to a program insert), Zimmerman’s staging and choreography color the stories with movement. With only some music, a few low tables, and the actors, the tales travel from Egypt to India.
Along with being agile and flexible, the cast also performs with honesty. Although she’s blonde (which was a little distracting), Lamson’s Scheherezade is vibrant and humble, and her love for her stories is moving. There are some standouts among the customizable cast. Allen Gilmore is excellent as Scherezade’s father and one of the funniest actors in the cast, playing a ridiculous jester and lunatic. Usman Ally, Ramiz Monsef, and Minita Ghandi also can switch from comedy to romance to tragedy with skill.
Basically, Zimmerman reminds us how much stories affect us. We tell and listen to them everyday, through text message or best-selling book. “Arabian Nights” reveals the tales of a culture that has a monumental effect on our daily lives and national policy, from mortar attacks to the cost of gasoline. Yes, gems of wisdom are found in the play, but most importantly, we find that our two cultures experience many of the same values and struggles.
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Produced in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre. “Arabian Nights” features the work of company members Daniel Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld, Andre Pluess, Alison Siple, Sara Gmitter, Andy White, David Catlin, Louise Lamson and Heidi Stillman