Arena Stage presents Mary Zimmerman's evocative, provocative "Arabian Nights"
The centuries-old classic formally known as “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night” presents one of the great plot devices: Young maiden Scheherezade escapes murder at the hands of King Shahryar by telling him riveting, to-be-continued stories.
In 1992, Mary Zimmerman adapted this material into a colorful work, “The Arabian Nights,” which has settled into Arena Stage with a dynamic cast and a fabulous collection of rugs.
It’s a long show (you may start to feel as if you will have to spend 1,001 nights in the theater), but something absorbing or amusing pops up after every slow spot, and the cumulative effect of so many characters and adventures is substantial.
Whether you laugh hysterically at the ultimate flatulence tale depends on how suppressed your inner frat boy is, but stories and stories-within-stories addressing love, lust and loyalty deliver their lessons and morals effectively. And the account of a little lost bag with strange qualities, an account improvised at each performance, is
Stacey Yen is a vivacious Scheherezade, David DeSantos a volatile King Shahryar. The large ensemble is filled with similarly astute and amiable actors.
Zimmerman directs the action with a sure, imaginative touch. The combination of Daniel Ostling’s set, Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes and T.J. Gerchens’ lighting proves terrifically evocative. Music by Andre Pluess adds greatly to the atmosphere; that the cast lacks distinctive singers doesn’t really hurt too much.
It’s worth remembering that Zimmerman wrote “The Arabian Nights” when the First Gulf War was a very fresh memory. That explains a still-powerful undercurrent in the play that surfaces to compelling effect in a few key spots, as when the young woman known as Sympathy the Learned (nicely portrayed by Susaan Jamshidi) amazes her elders with her command of the principals of Islam.
In the last scene, after a brilliant passage that sends cast members to every corner of the stage reciting different tales frantically all at once, the faint sound of a siren is heard. That, and strikingly choreographed movements for the performers, then take all of us to a very different kind of night in Baghdad.
Note: Veteran CBS broadcaster Sam Litzinger and actor/musician Ronnie Malley of "The Arabian Nights" cast will discuss the history of Middle Eastern music at 12:30 p.m. Sunday (1/30) at Arena Stage/Mead Center for American Theater. Admission is free. To rsvp, call 202-488-3300.
PHOTO (by Stan Barouh) COURTESY OF ARENA STAGE