Theatre Review: The Arabian Nights
The stage explodes in a flurry of activity as a talented cast of 15 descends on it in Tony Award Winner Mary Zimmerman’s production “The Arabian Nights,” now at Chicago’s Looking Glass Theatre. Drums beat furiously while beautiful carpets and actors fly through the air, one of them on a flying carpet. The cast moves about the stage with the choreographed precision and enthusiasm of a group possessed with the conviction that it has great stories to tell, and tell them they do. Everything from the philosophical to the scatological, tales of love and self-realization to tales of madness, revenge and absurdity are presented with a fluidity that moves from story to story.
The cast is nimble, sensuous and alternately silly and profane. They are a charismatic group that lovingly takes our disbelief, suspends it to the ceiling and keeps it safe while they take us on the journey. It is a trip that can only happen in the theatre. The actors take on multiple roles but it is always clear who is playing what part or parts. At many points, while a story is being told, we see and hear the story-teller say the lines simultaneously with the character acting out the story.
It is a beguiling and wonderful challenge to keep it all straight. Just like those hand painted wooden Russian dolls where one fits inside the other and then into another, a story starts and then a character, or characters, in the story have a story to tell themselves and then we see that story, but we still need to return to the initial story and then to the person telling that initial story which started it all. The result is one that draws the audience into this show’s uniquely theatrical vortex.
The person telling all these stories is, of course, Scheherezade the queen whose very survival depends on her ability to keep her King husband, Shahryar, hooked night after night, story after story, so he will not kill her. Shahryar, played with a sadistic intensity by Ryan Artaburger, has a habit of marrying virgins and then killing them on his wedding night so that they will not have a chance to be unfaithful to him. Scheherezade is played by the very beautiful and talented Stacey Yen who expertly alternates emotions ranging from fear of imminent death to the calm, intriguing skills of a world-class story-teller.
The cast also includes the very versatile Broadway and off Broadway actor and musician Louis Tucci (“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” “Return to the Forbidden Planet”). Tucci, in addition to showcasing his considerable musical talent, here also reveals a talent for comedy. Tucci plays a showcase of characters including a court jester and a cuckolded husband, each to hilarious perfection. Judging from the recent trend of Broadway musicals requiring the rare combination of actors who can also play instruments (“Sweeney Todd,” “Company”) Tucci seems to be on the cutting edge.
Be warned this is not your father’s “Arabian Nights.” For this compelling production Zimmerman, who previously captivated Broadway with “Metamorphosis” in 2002, moves from the myths of Ovid to the lesser known Arabian Nights stories. No facile Disney retread tales of Aladin and his genie here. These stories are sharp, insightful, alternately funny and morally complex. On the subject of moral complexity applying a modern sensibility to the over all show reveals that on one level yes “The Arabian Nights” is about placating a serial killer. I mean, Shahryar has killed some 900 young girls and Scheherezade could easily be his next victim if not for her stories. Remember this was in the days before cable when stories were not as easy to come by. On another level though “The Arabian Nights” reminds us that the need to hear and tell stories is innate and important. In addition there is no more compelling dramatic need for a character than saving their life which motivates Scheherezade’s wonderful stories. It is the engine that drives the show and will hopefully drive “The Arabian Nights” to open in New York.