Related Articles: Theater, All

The Arabian Nights

A Sensuous Garden of Delights

The stories of the 1001 Nights conjure exotic images of glittering jewels, desert caravans, magic genies in long-forgotten lamps, and evil viziers plotting to overtake the kingdom. However, also included are simpler, more human tales of love, betrayal, honor, forgiveness, kindness, death, and bodily functions. It is these aspects of the stories that Mary Zimmerman takes up in her play, “The Arabian Nights." While the times and places that she captures are beautiful, faraway, and exotic, the stories that she chooses to tell, and the way in which she chooses to tell them, are surprisingly familiar.

The play is a collection of contrasts that work together wonderfully to produce a profoundly funny, and profoundly moving, piece. It begins on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, which is littered with large lumps blanketed in wrinkled white dropcloths. Two crumbling concrete walls meet at right angles at the back of the stage, complete with exposed wires, fuse boxes, and a doorway walled up with cinderblocks. A bare light bulb hangs low over the center of the stage. This scene of modern desolation is quickly overcome by musicians and dancers, however, and stripped away to reveal richly colored carpets layered upon each other, the bare light bulb replaced with several hanging lanterns that cast intricate shadows over the dark red and gold of the rugs. This theme of life-in-death, of beauty covered over by horror, repeats throughout.

The play itself is composed of stories within stories within stories, like nesting Russian dolls, yet as each story is told, it grows and expands like a tiny seed becoming an elegant flowering tree, arising out of the fertile soil of the human imagination and populating the play with a blossoming garden of beauty, sensuality, love, trickery, birth, death, and, yes, even vulgarity. The frame that holds them together is as rich and complex as the stories in it: King Sharyar, betrayed by his wife, marries a virgin every night and then kills her at dawn.

As one might expect, the number of virgins dwindles quickly, until the only two left are the daughters of the king’s wazir: Scheherazade and her younger sister, Dunyazade. Ultimately, Scheherazade takes up this terrible fate willingly and hopes to extend her life by telling King Sharyar stories every night, but leaving them unfinished in the morning so his curiousity will spare her life for another day.

It is her stories that populate the play: “The Madman’s Tale, “The Contest of Generosity,” “The Wonderful Bag,” “Abu Al-Hasan’s Fart,” “The Mock Khalifah”; these stories are told with a sensuality and playfulness that is at once utterly beautiful and hysterically funny. Scheherazade and King Sharyar are ever-present, their reactions exposed to the audience - the conflicts in the stories themselves a vicarious experience that brings about King Sharyar’s ultimate reawakening to life. By the end of the first act, Scheherazade has relieved him of his knife, and by the end of the play, he has not only fallen in love with her, but set her free as well.

The sensual experience of the play is utterly stunning: between the richly carpeted stage and the colorful, bejeweled costumes of the characters, the eye is treated to a true garden of delights. The actors each play multiple parts, successfully convincing the audience of the reality of each new character as well as exhibiting a chemistry with each other that gives rise to naturally flowing scenes. Not only do the actors play multiple parts, but they also are required to sing, dance, and play various musical instruments, all of which they do successfully and which add to the richness of the play.

In addition, Zimmerman requires the actors to use their faces and bodies not only to convey complex emotions, but also to represent physical objects such as goats, the sea, a boat, waves, and dead leaves blowing in the wind. She truly exploits the whole range of abilities of the human body and mind in order to present the audience with a spellbinding collection of tales, ending with a subtle yet effective political comment.

However, the thrust stage has its limitations: because it is surrounded on three sides by the audience, there are points where an actor may have his or her back to part of the audience while speaking towards another section, or where an actor’s body may block part of the audience’s view of important physical actions. This can become frustrating when audience members feel they are being excluded from the action. On the other hand, this type of staging allows for an enormous amount of flexibility in a play where several actions occur at once, and in fact includes as it excludes- by extending out into the audience, the stage serves to pull the audience into the action and connect it more intimately with the actors.

Mary Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights” is a work of incredible complexity, the widely varying stories working together like one of Bach’s fugues, with their multiple variations interweaving, connecting and disconnecting, flowing and twining together to make a whole entity out of disparate parts. She depicts selfless generosity and the depths of human suffering alongside cunning trickery, sexual innuendo, and the basest of physical humor, ultimately reflecting back to King Sharyar, and to the audience, a vision of the self.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage
November 13, 2008- January 18, 2009