Arabian Nights at Arena Stage
Mary Zimmerman is back. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Zimmerman’s "Arabian Nights" comes to Arena Stage fresh on the heels of the closing days of Zimmerman’s vision of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theater. The two plays being so close together are an embarrassment of theatrical riches, for which you need heart, mind, empathy and imagination to be working at full capacity to get the full effect.
“Arabian Nights” is no Disney production, nor Richard Burton’s, nor the Frenchman’s who wrote something like it in the 1700s. It belongs to none of the storytellers who might have told the original stories over the centuries. There is no Ali Baba here, no Sabu or Sinbad. The authorship and content of the “Arabian Nights” tales are thick with thumbprints and a host of Middle East and further east cultures.
The program will tell you that this production was written and directed by Mary Zimmerman and adapted from “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,” as translated by Powys Mathers. This is probably a truth, but to put it squarely, the final author is Mary Zimmerman, as is the case with most of her work, no matter if it goes back centuries. The rambunctiously inventive director-playwright explodes the stage every time out.
“Arabian Nights” at the Arena belongs to Zimmerman; hers is the power and the glory, the credit and the blame—some of which will surely come. Oddly enough, this “Arabian Nights” also belongs to us, if we choose to own it. By us, I mean the members of the audience, but also historical Americans who have left heavy, wrenching footprints in the glorious city of Baghdad, where this night of nights is set.
Picture this: a stage, full of wrinkled, large canvasses, unfurled, deeply pleated. Picture this now in the court of a medieval Baghdad, where a troubled, dangerous king is marrying virginal brides every day for three years and killing them nightly, after finding his first bride in the arms of another man whom he dispatched. He is a man with an awesome fear of women and love. He says “Say not, ‘If I might love and yet escape the follies of loving’, but rather ‘Only a miracle brings a man safe from love.’”
He has almost depleted the kingdom of marriage-age young women by this time, and so picks Scheherazade, the daughter of his closest adviser, the Wazir. Accompanied by her faithful sister, she comes dutifully to the palace and spins a series of stories for the king, cliffhangers of love, death and comedy, so that he’s forced to stave off her execution one day at a time. Just so, her father comes each morning with a shroud for her funeral.
We may know this story already. But we don’t know the story as Zimmerman tells it. You weren’t expecting the tale of the madman and how he got that way. You surely weren’t expecting the burlesque-like routine of “What’s in the Bag,” the contents of which are improvised by the actors each night.
And you probably weren’t expecting to see, with an ache in your heart, an ancient civilization resurrected like a fleshy, musical mirage before your eyes. This is the Baghdad of Harun al Rashid, the city’s most fabled ruler. It is a city where poets ruled as much as sheiks and kings, and women were beautiful, dangerous and impossible to know. Zimmerman’s Baghdad is a city of fable, merchants and musclemen—not the modern city wrecked by shock and awe, where Sunnis and Shiites battle and hand-made bombs are just another roadside attraction.
I could talk about the costumes, and the technical and showy detail that Zimmerman is so good at; lamps descend onto the stage, a man meets himself on the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, ancient musical instruments play loudly and sweetly, and a civilization dies before your eyes.
It has been suggested that there are stereotypes in the show, and it’s true. But Zimmerman addresses this issue with a very important statement, which speaks volumes about the material:
“It is a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different form ourselves; it is a precondition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same.”
Watching and responding to a story that depends on its rolling laughter is to remember that something as simple as a fart makes the whole world helpless with laughter. It’s surely a shared experience. But so is the torture of love, and so is the heartbreak of a love song. In these stories, we ought to recognize ourselves, our common humanity, as well as the pungent power of stories.
What’s in this bag? More than it has any business holding. Go hear the stories of “The Arabian Nights.” You will dream about it and talk about it. I guarantee it.