Monday, January 19, 2009

Baghdad by the Bay: "The Arabian Nights" at Berkeley Rep

There's at least one big pitfall in adapting The Arabian Nights into a stage production: Scheherezade's stories must cast the same spell over the audience as they do over King Shahryar; we must feel that they are captivating enough to pique the interest and eventually melt the heart of the most implacable man in Arabia. Anything less than that amounts to failure, and will only result in a spate of snarky reviews that say things like "Shahryar had to listen to these stories for 1001 nights, but I couldn't even stand them for two hours."

And thus, consider it the highest and hardest-won compliment when I say that I could have gone on watching Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights forever.

This was my first time experiencing Zimmerman's work, and while I loved her aesthetic, more elements of it were familiar to me than I expected. It's the kind of storytelling-theater that I recognize from years of acting classes, full of movement work, playful use of props, actors switching fluidly between narration and impersonation. Even some improv, in a scene where two actors (who vary from performance to performance) are called upon to invent comic monologues listing what is in the "Wonderful Bag." In short, a great, teeming theatrical panoply. Even the prologue dazzled: the ensemble unrolled heaps of Oriental rugs, and elaborate lanterns dropped down from the flies, transforming the bare stage into an Arabian souk before you could believe your eyes. Beautifully designed and costumed, but otherwise low-tech theater, the kind where (as Tony Kushner says of Angels in America) the magic occurs because the strings are visible.

Zimmerman has selected lesser-known Arabian Nights stories for this play (no Aladdin, Sinbad, or Ali Baba), with an eye toward covering a wide range of moods. Act I ends with the most shamelessly extended fart joke since Blazing Saddles, while Act II ends with a moving parable about the importance of telling stories and passing knowledge along. In general, the first act is more comedic and the second is more dramatic--a time-honored, and therefore timeless, structure.

Everything feels of a piece, though, because life itself is vivid and varied, and because there's a great ensemble of actors working their hearts out to put it over. There was an understudy at the performance I saw, but I couldn't even discern which actor it was, since the whole group was so seamless. They're an attractive and truly multicultural ensemble who dance, sing, clown, play drums. And while Sofia Jean Gomez, who plays Scheherezade, may look like a conventional blonde ingenue, her attractively husky and authoritative voice makes her perfect for the role of the storyteller.

In an interview printed in the program, Zimmerman notes:
Before beginning rehearsals for the first Arabian Nights [presented by Lookingglass Theatre in 1992]...I was full of a great many theoretical and overtly political ideas for its staging that would call attention to its contemporary relevance... [But] the stories spoke more than loudly enough for themselves: their humanity, wisdom, humor, vulgarity, and poetry were manifest... Almost none of that original impulse toward overt commentary remains.
Indeed, and thankfully so. Politics and didacticism would be antithetical to the storytelling magic that The Arabian Nights must create. Though one episode of the play has a slight "Muslims! They're Just Like Us!" feeling to it (a wise girl named Sympathy the Learned offers advice on living a virtuous life and reminds us that Muslims consider Jesus a prophet), the rest of the work makes no trumpeting claims to contemporary relevance--it doesn't need to. There are a few jokes that rely on pop-culture allusions (and which jolted me out of the play, honestly) but the rest of the humor would work well in any culture and at any time period. And the occasional refrain of "Baghdad, city of peace and poets" is poignant without being heavy-handed.

Late in Act II there is a scene where all the ensemble members talk over one another, dividing into small groups and enacting multiple stories simultaneously. And I could have stayed in the theater until Mary Zimmerman had fully staged each of those stories in front of me, one by one. Or I could even have stayed listening to that overlapping dialogue, stories flowing into stories all night--a testament to the endless power of human imagination, and the desire to know what happens next, that great art provokes.

Note to any readers in Kansas City or Chicago: This was a sell-out hit at Berkeley Rep and I almost didn't get to see it. Book your tickets ASAP for when it comes to Kansas City Rep or Lookingglass Theater!

Top image: Evan Zes with the Ensemble. Bottom image: Sofia Jean Gomez and Alana Arenas (the actress I met on the train). Photos by Kevin Berne, © Berkeley Rep.

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