Review: `The Arabian Nights’


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


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.


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

Review: `Argonautika’

Opened Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre

Zimmerman dazzles in adventurous Argonautika
Four stars Argonaut-to-be-missed

With director Mary Zimmerman at the helm of the Argos, you know the voyage is going to be interesting.

Sure enough, Zimmerman, the Chicago-based visionary whose work has won her a Tony Award (Metamorphoses), a MacArthur “genius” grant and the admiration of audiences across the country, renders the story of Jason and the Argonauts with her typical passion and flair.

Argonautika, born in Chicago last year and now on a mini-tour of regional theaters, is Zimmerman at her most accessible and enjoyable.

Now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, Argonautika is more fun than the last few Zimmerman shows we’ve seen in Berkeley. Certainly it lacks the oppressive darkness of The Secret in the Wings, and its story is far more captivating than The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

My favorite Zimmerman work will likely always be Metamorphoses, a work of rare beauty and emotion, but a close second is 1996’s Journey to the West, a piece of epic storytelling that managed to be both intimate and grand, imaginative and illuminating.

That’s what Argonautika is – gorgeous storytelling in which surprises abound. We expect adventure and fun as Jason and his men set sail for Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece.

What we don’t expect is the abundant humor – of the frat-boy and high-minded variety – or the fantastic songs (sound design and composition by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman) or the pockets of emotional complexity as the story evolves into something more than a myth and becomes a whole lot more about human loss and love.

The whole show takes place in a beautiful, open-backed wooden box (set by Daniel Ostling, stunning lighting by John Culbert) that is meant to evoke the deck of the Argos. To my mind, the set seemed to be more of a storytelling gymnasium in which the actors get a workout taking turns as narrators, playing multiple roles, flying in and out of the set, setting up the ship’s rigging and fighting Michael Montenegro’s terrific bare-bones puppets (the giant, the harpies and the dragon are particularly enjoyable).

Goddesses Hera (Christa Scott-Reed) and Athena (Sofia Jean Gomez) are our story guides as well as the guardians of Jason (Jake Suffian) and his crew as they court danger at every turn.

Most of the cast comes from the Chicago production, but local actor Soren Oliver is a delight as the muscle-brained Hercules whose tenderness is reserved for his soul mate, Hylas (Justin Blanchard). Oliver is also the imposing, xenophobic King Aietes, costumed like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon (costumes by Ana Kuzmanic), whose job it is to make Jason as miserable as possible.

Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts gets really interesting in Act 2 when Medea (Atley Loughridge) enters the picture.

The young sorceress gets shot through with one of Eros’ arrows, and we see the arrow sticking through her abdomen and watch her dress get increasingly bloody as she falls for Jason.

When her magic saves Jason’s bacon, Jason professes his undying love and devotion to Medea and says if he ever hurts or betrays her, she should do something unimaginably horrible to him. All the while, a black-cloaked, winged creature takes down Jason’s every word, and we feel the chill. We want to tell Jason and Medea’s future sons to run, children, run, for their father is a lying, manipulative bastard, though he might not know it yet.

Argonautika, which runs about 2 ½ hours, travels well beyond the usual quest-adversity-triumph and takes us into the tragedy of Jason and Medea’s later life, and though we lose the thrill of the adventure, we gain the depth and pleasures of truly remarkable storytelling.

For information about Argonautika, visit or call 510-647-2949.

Building a myth

Set designer Daniel Ostling has set sail with director Mary Zimmerman once again.

The two Chicago-based artists have a long history working together at Zimmerman’s artistic home, the Lookingglass Theatre Company. Ostling designed her extraordinary production of Metamorphoses, which Berkeley Repertory Theatre produced before the show moved on to Broadway, where it nabbed Zimmerman a Tony Award. He also designed her Secret in the Wings, another show that came to Berkeley Rep after its Chicago run.

The next Zimmerman-Ostling collaboration to make the journey west is Argonautika, a retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts story.

The play previews at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre this weekend and opens Wednesday before heading east to the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

The idea for the set was to create a completely immersive experience — as if audience and actors were all in a site-specific piece of artwork. More specifically, Ostling and Zimmerman put the entire production, audience and all, into the wooden confines of the Argos, Jason’s trusty ship.

But the Lookingglass is a flexible space, with infinite possibilities. At the Roda (and at the two other theaters on this mini-tour), however, Ostling’s challenge was to adapt an unconventional set for a proscenium space.

“How do we keep that sense of austereness of the ship and keep the same energy while also embracing the new spaces?” Ostling asked himself.

At Lookingglass, the audience was essentially in the boat, but in a proscenium stage, the audience is looking at the boat.

“To me, the most thrilling thing about being in the theater is being in the theater,” Ostling says. “When you look through the set, we leave it open to the back of the theater, so we’re self-referencing that we’re in a theater. That will come and go. Sometimes you’ll be aware of that, other times it’s less present. I think that keeps the energy alive in a proscenium theater.”

Like most of us, Ostling’s only real experience with the Jason and the Argonauts story came from the old movie, which was best known for its Ray Harryhausen stop-motion special effects. He says Zimmerman’s version of the story was something of a revelation to him.

“I think Act 1 is what people expect from Mary — adventures, lots of monsters, very heroic voyages,” Ostling explains. “The second act, when Jason returns to Medea, he’s very much the antihero, very human. His relationship with Medea, his manipulation and using her, it’s pretty amazing. Act 2 is very powerful — darker than what you might expect. It sort of punches you in the stomach.”

Argonautika continues through Dec. 16 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.