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A CurtainUp Review
The Arabian Nights
The show begins with a trio of musicians playing splendidly rhythmic Middle Eastern melodies by composer Andre Pluess on drums, clarinet, oud (that's the Middle Eastern/Arabic version of a lute), harmonium, banjo and finger cymbals. The sounds are genuine and quite marvelous. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them. The musical interludes are brief. Would that the same could be said about the stories that make up The Arabian Nights. For two hours and forty minutes this is not a ride on a magic carpet but a schlep through scenes of varying degrees of interest.
The Arabian Nights is not Zimmerman's best work. her production of Candide At the Shakespeare Theater, was superior and earlier Pericles, was by far her best presentation here to date.
Based on folktales handed down from generation to generation, the plot begins with King Shahryar (an unconvincing David DeSantos) having killed his wife because she had been unfaithful to him.Vowing to never marry again but to continue to pursue women for pleasure only, King Shahryar's plan is to "marry" a woman for one night — and then kill her. Enter Scheherezade (unevenly performed by Stacey Yen), a winsome young girl who realizes that to stay alive she must satisfy the King in several ways which includes telling stories that will hold his interest. Her story-telling technique (perfected centuries later in television series) involves ending just before a climax, leaving the King desperate for more. It works. Her life is spared and the King declares his love for her.
Writer/director Zimmerman's "hey, kids, let's put on a show" technique is to have actors improvise at rehearsal each character's basic story line — a madman, a robber, a jeweler, a greengrocer, Sympathy the Learned (a woman who knows all), a sage, the other woman — after which she writes the script. Something of a reversal from the traditional way of writing a play but for Zimmerman how a show looks and how the actors move is of utmost importance. Words are secondary. The results are uneven.
In the first act, there's plenty of humor, often repetitive and much too long. (Is it really necessary to drag out a fart joke?) Poetic licence lets Zimmerman and her ensemble add a skit about Sarah Palin, a fox, and the BBC that I would venture did not appear in any of the original versions. The second act turns serious, particularly when Sympathy the Learned (an earnest performance by Susaan Jamshidi) imparts her considerable knowledge on subjects such as religion, science and philosophy.
Maybe Zimmerman's cast is not used to working in the round; maybe Zimmerman's actors are not as well-trained as the actors Washington is accustomed to seeing; maybe Zimmerman the director is too self- indulgent to edit Zimmerman the writer. Even the movement begins to look familiar Actors standing in a diagonal line, actors rolling around on the floor, actors milking a gag for longer than necessary. And yet there are some very nice touches such as the round dance performed by fez-wearing whirling dervishes.
Visually, there's a lot going on. Dan Ostling's set is sparse but very colorful. Oriental rugs line the floor; platforms and very authentic divan cushions are added when warranted. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes made from yards and yards of very beautiful silks are a delight to look at — particularly the parasols. Be prepared for quite a fashion parade. But the star of this production is lighting designer T. J. Gerckens. As the play begins, a single light bulb lights the stage which is bare except for the Persian carpets. Later wonderful lanterns made of glass and iron in arabesque designs hang from the rafters. No two are alike. And the way Gerckens differentiates between night and day as well as joy and sorrow is quite remarkable.