Review: Lookingglass’s “The Arabian Nights”

Arabian Nights’ epic tales reveal prosaic and timely gems of wisdom

 

 The Arabian Nights
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Lookingglass Theatre (buy tickets here )

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As we watch actors splash around in a giant pool in “Twelfth Night” or fly above our heads in “Mary Poppins,” it’s easy to forget theatre’s humble origins. Storytelling is a worldwide fascination of all cultures and times, currently manifesting itself in Hollywood films, blogs (like the one you’re reading at this moment), and, of course, theatre. Keeping ArabianNights_Lookingglassgrandiose Greek works and Shakespearean epics in mind, playwright and director Mary Zimmerman explores theatre’s ritualistic and narrative roots in her plays. In her play “The Arabian Nights,” she dramatizes a thousand year old non-Western text, “1,001 Arabian Nights.” This is not merely a simple adaptation for the stage. The Lookingglass team performs in an array of ways, tossing into “Arabian Nights” the elements of a World Music concert, dance show, gymnastic event, improv performance, and a really long fart joke, as well as an insightful dramatic piece.

This is the third Lookingglass production of founder Zimmerman’s Near East epic. Each production coincided with a volatile period of American relations with the Islamic world, especially Iraq. The play premiered in 1992, directly after the first Gulf War. The second Lookingglass production took place in 1997, concurrent with Clinton’s order of air strikes on Iraq. Twelve years later, we are reminded of our involvement in Iraq every day.

Arabian Nights 1It’s nice to hear the names of places usually only heard on the nightly news—Iran, Basra, Cairo—in a positive light. I was reminded that when “1,001 Arabian Nights” was first written down in Arabic, the Muslim world was the most advanced society in the world, while Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages.

A7S1018web_normal Zimmerman completely embraces the idea of narrative. The frame of the play is the story of King Shahryar (Ryan Artzburger) and the young Scheherezade (Louise Lamson). Betrayed by his wife, the King marries, loves, and murders a different girl every night. The night Scheherezade’s number comes up, she decides she’ll attempt to delay his knife by entertaining his ear with her trove of stories. This works, and her flair for narrative keeps her head on her shoulders night after night after night. Her yarns range from short, funny tales to sprawling epics exploring love, death, and morality, and all of them are performed for us by the diversely talented cast. On top of Scherezade’s storytelling, many of the characters in her tales relate stories of their own. Because of the multiple stories-within-stories, the whole play is richly layered and complex. Some are childish, some are sexy, some are heartbreaking, all are thought-provoking. On a more or less bare stage covered with Persian rugs (proudly provided by Oscar Isberian Rugs, according to a program insert), Zimmerman’s staging and choreography color the stories with movement. With only some music, a few low tables, and the actors, the tales travel from Egypt to India.

Along with being agile and flexible, the cast also performs with honesty. Although she’s blonde (which was a little distracting), Lamson’s Scheherezade is vibrant and humble, and her love for her stories is moving. There are some standouts among the customizable cast. Allen Gilmore is excellent as Scherezade’s father and one of the funniest actors in the cast, playing a ridiculous jester and lunatic. Usman Ally, Ramiz Monsef, and Minita Ghandi also can switch from comedy to romance to tragedy with skill.

Arabian Nights 1

Basically, Zimmerman reminds us how much stories affect us. We tell and listen to them everyday, through text message or best-selling book. “Arabian Nights” reveals the tales of a culture that has a monumental effect on our daily lives and national policy, from mortar attacks to the cost of gasoline. Yes, gems of wisdom are found in the play, but most importantly, we find that our two cultures experience many of the same values and struggles.

 

Rating: «««½

Venue: Water Tower Water Works
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Lookingglass Theatre (buy tickets here )

Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Produced in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre.  “Arabian Nights” features the work of company members Daniel Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld, Andre Pluess, Alison Siple, Sara Gmitter, Andy White, David Catlin, Louise Lamson and Heidi Stillman

Review: Cirque Shanghai – Bright Spirit

Disparate acts gracefully knitted together create a lovely distraction. 

 

Cirque Shanghai: Bright Spirit
Navy Pier, running through September 7th. (buy tickets here)

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

The outfits evoke a Bedazzler-run-amok in Siegfried and Roy’s costume shop. The lighting is pure glitter gulch. And the acts? Picture Liberace’s long-lost Shanghai-born twin falling into a giant sloshing bucket of Cirque de Soleil and emerging with a show for audiences more accustomed to Vegas-style MTV smash cuts than the studied elegance of those artsy-fartsy French Canadians.

Cirque Shanghai_379 This is the wonderful world of Cirque Shanghai: Bright Spirit (buy tickets here), running in the Armadillo – whoops, the Skyline Stage – on Navy Pier through September 7th. The 90-minute production is a variety show on steroids – but if steroids were a good thing. Which is to say, Bright Spirit is a hopped up, mega-amplified celebration of some of the most garishly useless and entertaining skills around: Hoop divers, plate spinners, chair climbers (!), hat jugglers (!!) and unitard-clad creatures in inner tubes bouncing and rolling in ways that seem to defy more than a few fundamental laws of physics. For summer time guilty pleasures, Bright Spirit is up there with State Fair Fried Twinkies and snickering Oak Street beach’s endless preening spandex parade.

Directed by Naperville-native Dwight Jordan and choreographed by Lincolnshire native Brenda Didier, Bright Spirit – like all the Cirque Shanghai productions – is the brain child of Mike Wilson. The son of travelling magicians, Wilson followed his parents throughout China as a child, picking up a lifelong fascination with Chinese acrobatics, dance and folklore along the way. In 1990, he started bringing Chinese performers to the U.S., envisioning a sort of cross-cultural pollination between traditional Chinese art forms and high-tech Western production values. Almost 20 years later, Cirque Shanghai is the elaborate culmination of that vision. And in Navy Pier – a venue where one can find just about everything but beat baiting (though there’s lots of cotton candy for just such a purpose) – Wilson has a venue that perfectly complements Cirque Shanghai’s hybrid of populist thrill-o-rama stunts and ancient Eastern art forms.

Cirque Shanghai - Bright Spirit, now playing at Navy Pier through September 7th.

Now in its fourth season on the Pier, Cirque Shanghai has been polished and tweaked since it initially arrived, but the core showstoppers remain intact, a splendid display of spectacularly worthless skills resplendently presented.

Plate spinners turn the stage into a dizzying, dazzling pond filled with hundreds of rapidly orbiting lily pads set twirling by elite-level gymnasts. In an inexplicable (yet laugh-out-loud amusing) non-sequitor of sorts, a giant day-glo caterpillar that looks for all the world like an outtake from “James and the Giant Peach” makes his undulating way across the stage toward the dinnerware finale.

Cirque Shanghai, now playing at Navy Pier, runs through September 7th Also nifty: The Russian barre, wherein acrobats make the likes of Nastia Luikin look like a piker as they flip and whirl on a balance beam that seems to be made out of a giant foam noodle.

We’ve long fancied ourselves a connoisseur of contortionists, and the seemingly boneless wonders here do not disappoint offering a gallery of body positions that, when one stops to think about it, are simply not possible.

And only at Cirque Shanghai can you catch the “bumble bee diabolo” – wherein manically smiling young ladies propel a cross between nunchucks, windmill propellers and giant yoyos in an act that perfectly captures the timeless sentiment “you’re gonna put somebody’s eye out with that thing.”

With such disparate acts gracefully knitted together by Didier’s apt choreography, Bright Spirit is a lovely distraction. Save the Serious Art for fall. Now is the summer of our deep content with the likes of plate spinners.

Rating: ««½

‘CIRQUE SHANGHAI: GOLD’
When: Through Sept. 1 (12 shows a week, including most afternoons)
Where: Pepsi Skyline Stage, Navy Pier
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $14.50-$29.50 at 312-902-1500

View Cirque Shanghai - Bright Spirit

Various “Cirque” Reviews:

  • Chicago Tribune’s review. (“Cirque Shanghai leaves crowd cheering)
  • Sun-Times’ review. (…modestly-staged acrobatics are generally neat.)
  • BroadwayWorld.com’s review. (…a soaring celebration of life appearing only in Chicago)

CirqueShanghai

See the entire Cirque Shanghai photo album here.