Review: `The Arabian Nights’

Nov 20

EXTENDED AGAIN! NOW THROUGH JAN. 18!

The rambunctious cast of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights tells the tale of the virtuous merchant, his hideous bride and the beauty who tricked him. Photos by kevinberne.com

 

Berkeley Rep unveils some enchanted `Nights’
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Thanks to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Bay Area audiences are sort of expert in the art of Mary Zimmerman.

Berkeley Rep’s relationship with the award-winning Chicago-based director and member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company is such that we’ve had a steady stream of Zimmerman productions, from the glorious, ultimately Tony Award-winning Metamorphoses to The Secret in the Wings, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and, most recently, Argonautika.

Zimmerman’s got a great gimmick: she creates beautifully designed, expertly acted vehicles for sophisticated storytelling. In a very grown-up way, she turns us into kids slathering for a juicy bedtime story.

And she always delivers.

Zimmerman and company are back at Berkeley Rep (in a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre) with The Arabian Nights, a show she originally created for Lookingglass in 1992 in response to the first Gulf War.

As expected, the production is gorgeous. Though Daniel Ostling’s set is a simple courtyard in the midst of rough buildings, with pillows, small wooden platforms and carpets scattered about, the space is lit in extraordinary, evocative, incredibly effective ways by TJ Gerckens’ lighting design.

There are gorgeous Middle Eastern lanterns hung over the stage and throughout the theater, but Gerckens’ lights are so much more – they become a mad house, an exotic night on the Tigris and, most significantly, the first rays of dawn, which could mean death for Scheherezade and the end of her stories.

Zimmerman has selected her stories from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, translated by Powys Mathers, and her approach to the classic collection of tales is compellingly human.

Our story begins with – what else? – a story. King Shahryar (Ryan Artzberger) was betrayed by his wife, so in his rage and grief, he assaults a virgin each night, and then kills her. With so few young women left in the country, young Scheherezade (Sofia Jean Gomez, left with Artzberger) concocts a plan to save her life and put an end to the slaughter.

With the help of her sister, Dunyazade (Stacey Yen), Scheherezade begins telling the king stories of all kinds, usually involving sex, violence and crude humor. Cleverly, and like a great serial storyteller, she stops at a crucial point, leaving the king begging for more.

With each dawn, and with each cliffhanger, Scheherezade is spared, the king is pulled one more degree away from his psychosis and we are treated to tantalizing story after story.

One tale folds into another as the evening flows along, enchanting us all the while.

Zimmerman’s 15-member ensemble tumbles and spins through the tales with grace and glee. They drum, they play stringed instruments, sing, dance and jump from one character to another with ease and clarity. And they’re gorgeous in the shimmering, flowing robes and gowns and drapes provided by costumer Mara Blumenfeld.

The nearly three-hour production might be somewhat overstuffed, but it’s hard to complain when a show is this engaging. For every jokey tale, like the one about the greatest fart in the world, there’s one with more depth such as the tale of Sympathy the Learned about an incredibly wise woman (played by Alana Arenas) or the tale of the false Kalifah, a man who pretends to be the ruler only because he wishes so badly to be anyone but his flawed self.

With so much focus on storytelling, it’s not at all surprising that Zimmerman unleashes her actors, for a moment, to spin some improvised tales of their own. During the tale of the “wonderful bag,” two actors are chosen at random from the ensemble to fight for a little purse that has been found in the marketplace and claimed by both men. Each actor must describe the contents of the bag in great detail.

At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, Ramiz Monsef and Evan Zes were the actors charged with making the audience (and their fellow cast members) howl with delight at each outrageous outburst. “My mother was a toothless whore. My father drank. Wouldn’t you?” was one part of the exchange, and the expression “moon over my hammy” was another.

With its ever present threat of death, The Arabian Nights never devolves into frivolity. There’s weight to the stories that comes from sadness and wisdom, and when, at the end, Zimmerman echoes present-day Baghdad, the oft-described “city of peace and poets,” we sense the depth of history and our place in it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

The Arabian Nights continues an extended run through Jan. 18 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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