Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman
Adapted from “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night”
Translated by Powys Mathers
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
November 13-January 4, 2008
A mighty beating of drums, the unrolling of a dozen or so precious Persian rugs and we’re off on a magic carpet ride that sweeps us into the air of antiquity and the ether of fantasy. When I was a little girl, I used to sneak into my mother’s bookcase to read her leather-bound edition of “The Arabian Nights” when she wasn’t home. I found it very sexy, very raunchy (although I doubt that I knew what those words meant at the age of 10 or 11) and very, very funny. Mary Zimmerman’s ingenious adaptation of the ancient tales, mounted at Berkeley Rep in co-production with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, proves I was right.
Zimmerman’s peculiar genius (and she has been officially proclaimed as such by the prestigious MacArthur Foundation) lies in adapting the classics for the modern stage in a whole new way. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and “Argonautica,” the re-imagining of the myth of Jason and Medea, both previously performed at Berkeley Rep, are cases in point. There are no “thee’s” or “thou’s” to trip up a modern sensibility. There is lots of music and graceful movement and a sense of sweeping spectacle passing before your eyes.
“Arabian Nights” may be her best yet. The time-worn story of the king (Ryan Artzberger) who finds his wife cheating on him with a slave and revenges his wounded pride by marrying a virgin each night and executing her in the morning so that he will never again be betrayed, is the frame for Zimmerman’s seamless weaving of a variety of tales. When the ruler runs out of girls to serve his bed (and his knife), his trusted advisor unwillingly gives him his lovely daughter, Scheherezade (Sofia Jean Gomez). She’s ready for him. Devising a ruse whereby her weeping sister begs her for a bedtime story on the wedding night, the wily bride spins a yarn, leaving off just before dawn. Her husband, thirsting more for the rest of the tale than for her blood, grants her another day of life. She finishes the first story and then begins another and so it goes for “a thousand and one nights” which, in the Arabic jargon of the time, symbolized a kind of infinity.
We are as mesmerized as the king. The first tale, about a merchant thrown into a madhouse as his punishment for unfaithfulness in love morphs into the hilarious and sexy story of the jester and his bride and her lovers: a pastry cook, a grocer, a butcher and a clarinet player. And each of these, brought before the court of justice, has a tale of his own to tell. As with Scheherezade herself, life hangs in the balance.
The first act is very funny. Zimmerman sends up the Persian penchant for poetry, ladles on a good share of slapstick and even injects a little rap. One story is nothing but a huge extended fart joke. Things turn a little more serious in Act Two, although no less entertaining. Harun al-Rashid (Barzin Akhavan), the legendary caliph known both for his fairness and his melancholy, figures at the heart of many encounters. As he wanders, disguised, through the streets of Baghdad at night, he meets a man who has caused the death of his one true love by following his fancy. To his court comes a brilliant woman named Sympathy the Learned (Alana Arenas) who, after besting all his wise counselors, refuses the caliph’s offer of marriage because Sympathy must lie with the poor, where she is most needed. This may be the loveliest story of them all.
As the stories go on, you can see the king softening toward Scheherezade, gradually turning from a murderous monster into a caring human being. Near the end, he wanders, amused and bemused, in and out of a wonderful cacophony of tales being told by everyone on the stage. The storyteller has triumphed and yet, this is not the end. There is one more. There always will be one more.
The 15 cast members double and triple effortlessly in roles. No one can be singled out as this is a true ensemble effort and they all are fine. Scenic design is by Daniel Ostling; the exotic costumes by Mara Blumenfeld and the original music and sound by Andre Pluess and the Lookingglass Ensemble (Writer/director Zimmerman’s home base is Lookingglass Theater of Chicago). As people are saying nowadays: “it’s all good”. Mere words are inadequate to describe this inventive show. It has to be seen. –