Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Arabian Nights written and directed by Mary Zimmerman at Arena Stage

The Stories of Scheherezade are passingly well-known to most persons who have studied literature.   Who doesn't know Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp thanks to the Disney film?  Or who hasn't heard of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves or the Seven Voyages of Sinbad?   Guess what?   None of those tales are part of the earliest known manuscripts of the Thousand and One Nights.  According to the very helpful and thorough dramaturg notes that Arena Stage thoughtfully provides (especially to those with a smartphone), you will learn that none of the most famous stories appear any earlier than Antoine Galland's French translation in the 18th century.

Prepare for a dazzling evening of wonder as you discover several of the tales spun by Scheherezade along side that of her damaged and cruel husband, King Shahryar.  If you could join the talented cast upon the Fichandler Stage you could pull up a comfy pillow and stretch out on a rich carpet and enjoy the adaptation of these marvelous stories created by the very imaginative Mary Zimmerman, first for Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago in 1992, revived for Berkeley Repertory Theater and now ensconced in the Fichandler Theater at Arena Stage.

Mary Zimmerman is one of the most creative writer/director's working in theater today.   The Thespian has had the priviledge of viewing her produtions of Argonautika, based on Jason and the Argonauts, and Shakespeare's Pericles at The Shakespeare Theater at the Harmon Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.  Ms. Zimmerman also recently directed a well-received version of the musical Candide also at The Shakespeare Theater.   With The Arabian Nights she returns to a work she originally created in 1992 inspired by "a military official boasting that we would bomb Iraq 'back to the Stone Age.'"   There is very little overtly political about this interpretation of the stories.   It is simply wonderful that Zimmerman was inspired to adapt the vast canon of between 200 and 300 stories that are extant in a very pleasant few hours upon the stage.  For this adaptation she chose to use the 1923 translation by Powys Mathers as it was more poetic, lyrical and erotic.

The framing tale of Scheherezade is a story of redemption and forgiveness.    King Shahryar (David DeSantos) discovers his queen has been unfaithful and he murders her and her lover in their bed.   Shahryar becomes so convinced that all women are deceitful and unfaithful that he vows to marry a virgin each night and kill her the next morning.   His vizier, Scheherezade's father (Allen Gilmore), is given the unhappy task of procuring the King's endless stream of victim brides.   After three years, no one remains in the kingdom who is eligible to be sacrificed to the King's anger.   Shahryar notices that his faithful servant has two daughters and demands the elder as his bride that very night and the younger girl the next night.   Scheherezade (Stacey Yen) agrees and brings her sister to the palace with a plan to try and save her life, her sister's life and the lives of any other unlucky girls who might follow.   Scheherezade's father is instructed to return to the palace the following morning carrying his daughter's burial shroud.

The marriage takes place, Shahryar attempts to kill Scheherezade and her sister, Dunyazade (Maureen Sebastian) cries that she cannot sleep unless she hears one of her Scheherezade's wonderful stories.   And thus it begins, as one tale leads to a tale with in a tale always ending at a cliffhanger and Scheherezade points out that it is dawn and her father awaits with her shroud.  Her life is spared for one more night as the King wishes to hear how the story will end, but the King forbids her to comfort her father.   The cycle begins that will end a thousand and one nights later.

Obviously not all of the stories can be adapted into one evening of theater.   Zimmerman judiciously has chosen tales that Scheherezade can use to instruct Shahryar in the ways of justice, error and forgiveness.   Okay, she also tells the world's greatest fart joke.    And, did you hear the one about the three nuns who go to heaven?

The talented ensemble all have moments in which they take the prominent part.   All are well cast and help provide a spellbinding evening.    Stacey Yen is a beautiful and sensual Scheherezade and is marvelously expressive in her voice and body as she weaves herself in and out of her tales.   David DeSantos is passionate and menacing as the vengeful King Shahryar.    Most of the tales chosen for adaptation take place in the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and as the bewildered at times ruler, Barzin Akhavan is both regal, exasperated and intrigued as the stories revolve around his court.   The Thespian especially appreciated the performance of Susaan Jamshidi, who while prominently featured in the know-it-all story Sympathy the Learned, captivated The Thespian's attention during a swirl of multiple stories being told at the same time, playing a tortoise who becomes a princess.  

This is the first production of the play to be performed in an arena setting and the director/writer and her actors have adapted well to the challenges.    The Thespian highly recommends this production for the opportunity to see a truly unique evening of theater.

The Arabian Nights written and directed by Mary Zimmerman will be performed in the Fichandler Theater at Arena Stage's Mead Center for the Performing Arts through February 20, 2011.   For tickets and performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.

Note:   In the program you can access detailed dramaturg notes by using your smartphone and the scanlife app.

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