Tapeworthy

Friday, February 04, 2011

Just Deserts - Arabian Nights - Play Review

Arabian Nights - Arena Stage's Finchlander Theatre - Washington, D.C. - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Mary Zimmerman, Adapted from
The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night
Runs until Feb. 20th 2011


I've only seen 2 other Mary Zimmerman projects, but watching her The Arabian Nights seems to solidify that she excels in pulling together various stories and plot threads and smoothing them over into one unifying and thrilling experience. She managed to turn Ovid's tales into an easily digestible, wondering experience in Metamorphoses, and she streamlined the sprawling story of Voltaire's Candide and finally made Leonard Bernstein's musical work in a simply astonishing fashion that flowed so easily through the maze of events.

Now, Mary Zimmerman has managed to squeeze the 1001 stories that make up The Arabian Nights and turn it into a glorious night under the stars and in the hot desert sands all in the midst of Arena Stage's newly and beautifully renovated theatre centre on a cold D.C. night. While Zimmerman doesn't actually fit all 1001 stories in, she covers a LOT of them, with stories within a story that helps tie it all together. It takes a few scenes to figure out the rhythms that have been set up (and to be honest, I was a little confused in some of the earlier scenes since it really is just a bunch of different stories being told), but once you wrap your head around Zimmerman's set up (because like Inception, sometimes it goes a few layers deep, with at one point, there are stories within a story within the overall story), The Arabian Nights becomes a fascinating trip the Middle East.

The talented ensemble cast of 14 keep things clear and moving as they continuously change roles as they tell the many tales of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. There's not a weakness in the cast, though with each actor constantly changing their looks into new characters, it's hard to keep track sometimes of who is who, which is how good they are at slipping into new roles. The only constant is the main story frame where David DeSantos plays King Shahryar, who spurned by a former lover, now takes a new virgin a night before he kills her. When he captures Scheherezade (a beautifully serene Stacey Yen) and her sister (a delightful Maureen Sebastian), she buys survival time by telling the King these 1001 stories that all come to life.

With a beautifully simple and evocative set by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, and lighting by T.J. Gerckens, Zimmerman easily pulls us into this ancient world of the Middle East, and subtly and smartly echoes these lesson tales to our own modern world.

Sometimes the tales are silly (there's a story on farts that goes on about 20 seconds too long, but is funny nonetheless), sometimes they are horrifying, sometimes they leave me mystified by what exactly happened or the impending message, but nonetheless, I was almost always enthralled (when I wasn't confused at the beginning). The stories tickle, bemuse, scare, delight ones senses and the way Mary Zimmerman directs them all with such a fluidity between the funny and the serious, the old stories come to life in such a stunning way.

Presented in theatre-the-round, with the sounds of beating drums and tambourines, Zimmerman makes wonderful use of the space, and in one spectacular scene, it seems like the cast tries to present as many of the remaining 1001 stories that haven't been told yet, all at once. With what seems like dozens of stories being told simultaneously, the audience listens in on the ones closest to them. It's a spectacular scene that surprisingly works, both technically and in spirit.

Zimmerman has fashioned such an elegant production full of wit and humour that her ultimate spin on the entire show leaves one quite breathless (without giving too much away). Particularly with current situations happening in the Middle East and in the desert sands of what Arabia refers to, it is refreshing to look back upon the 1001 tales to see how different those people are, and to realize how we really aren't.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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