Mary Zimmerman takes another Bay Area bow with The Arabian Nights
REVIEW Director Mary Zimmerman's association with the Berkeley Rep goes back to 1996's Journey to the West, her adaptation of the classical Chinese novel, famously followed in 2001 by Metamorphoses, a visually startling adaptation from Ovid's collection of Greek and Roman myths for which she went on to receive a directing Tony. Since then and always in collaboration with Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre, her home base, Zimmerman has returned four more times with productions in a similar vain: vigorously flamboyant, even cheeky stagings of classic texts from the ancient Greeks to the Brothers Grimm to most recently in a revival of a 1992 work currently up on the Rep's intimate Thrust Stage the 1,001 tales of The Arabian Nights.
Zimmerman has gained wide acclaim for this kind of work, and although I haven't seen them all, the few productions I have encountered have usually left me less than enthusiastic. When not just showy and underwhelming, they proved off-putting in their characteristic combination of baroque, antic staging and translation of "timeless" truths via an American vernacular of pop references, every-guy inflections, mundane sentiment, and low humor. At its worst, this meld of eye candy and "accessible" language feels like pandering and condescension at the same time, wedding a democratic instinct for dumbing down with a pretentious notion of what's good for us.
Harsh, I know, and evidently a minority opinion, but that said, I'm relieved to add that The Arabian Nights is one of the more successful expressions of this normally problematic formula. It exhibits only mild versions of the excesses mentioned, hewing closer to the spirit of the original material and showing more restraint overall than, for example, Argonautika, a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts' quest for the golden fleece whose relentless capering marked Zimmerman's last Berkeley Rep offering. The Arabian Nights is also restlessly inventive with staging, but more organically and less imposingly so. Unfolding with a versatile 15-member cast amid the luxurious minimalism of scenic designer Daniel Ostling's bed of Persian carpets and soft cushions, beneath an inviting glow from low-hanging antique lamps, Nights already has a less lofty and more approachable feel assuming one gets past the initial blush of Orientalism than the extravaganzas that have landed next door on the Rep's vast proscenium stage.
A co-production of Berkeley Rep and Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Nights was first staged in the wake of the first Gulf War. It was the mainstream media's narrative treatment of that conflict, especially its cheerful echoing of militaristic euphemisms steeped in callous brutality a casual discourse around bombing other people that is so familiar these days, even among "peace candidates" like President-elect Barack Obama, that it can go almost unremarked that reportedly sparked the idea to dip into the treasure trove of tales making up the legend of Scheherazade (Sofia Jean Gomez) and One Thousand and One Nights. Scheherazade, you'll remember, forestalls her wedding night execution at the hands of her new husband, a serial wife murderer with trust issues named King Shahryar (played as a sort of dour every-guy with royal license to kill by Ryan Artzberger), by unfurling, Penelope-like, one tantalizing yarn after another.
Her gripping storytelling ability is the king's and our pleasure both, as Scheherazade is granted one extension after another. The stories were indeed good enough in themselves to convince adapter Zimmerman to forego any heavy-handed political messaging in favor of foregrounding a choice selection of wonderfully improbable but often pointed tales concerning everything from infidelity to revenge, wisdom, and infamy the last via a monumental breaking of wind.
The immediate political urgency and topicality take a back seat and no doubt for the better, theatrically speaking to the dramatic and comic power of the stories themselves, augmented by a robust ensemble performance, in which the actors also take care of the musical accompaniment, handling a small, efficient assortment of traditional instruments. In revisiting it after another and far more ghastly Gulf war, Zimmerman seems to have gone even further in letting the stories have their say a tall-tale showdown is even improvised afresh each night for one particular scene.
There's enough bitter irony after all in the repetition of Baghdad's standard title as "the city of peace and poets." Beyond this, Nights adds only a quiet but hauntingly suggestive coda at the end of two enjoyable acts, wherein the animated bodies of Zimmerman's hard-working cast suddenly fall silent and roll gently across the stage, like so many leaves blown by catastrophes natural or man-made, marking time and an evanescence to which there is no possible response.
THE ARABIAN NIGHTS
Through Jan. 4, 2009
Tues.Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs. and Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.;
Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (check site for exceptions); $13.50$71
Berkeley Repertory Thrust Stage
2025 Addison, Berk.