2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Winners!

Jeff Awards Chicago header

2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Recipients

Monday, June 6th 2011

32 different companies were recognized going into the 2011 non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards. The Hypocrites, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and Lifeline Theatre had the most nominations. Redtwist Theatre was close behind while scoring 3 out of the 6 Best Play Production nominations. The non-equity Jeff Awards got off to a bang at the Park West Monday night with a lively Red Carpet show broadcast online prior (pictures), hosted by Eric Roach and Anderson Lawfer. The awards show was hosted by Kevin Bellie of Circle Theatre. It kicked off with a musical number from Theo Ubique’s Cats. After the parade of nominees, and a Lady Gaga bit performed by Bellie, the awards were doled out. The awards did not go off without a hitch, as the Best Director of a Musical was at first awkwardly announced incorrectly. Here’s how everything played out:

2011 NON-EQUITY JEFF AWARD RECIPIENTS

PRODUCTION / PLAY

Man from Nebraska Redtwist Theatre 

PRODUCTION / MUSICAL

Cabaret – The Hypocrites

DIRECTOR / PLAY

Jimmy McDermott   (Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group)
James Palmer   (The Love of the Nightingale, Red Tape Theatre

DIRECTOR / MUSICAL

Matt Hawkins   (Cabaret, The Hypocrites)

ENSEMBLE

Shakespeare’s King Phycus, The Strange Tree Group w/ Lord Chamberlain’s Men

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Chuck Spencer in Man from Nebraska, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Andrew Mueller in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Caroline Neff in Helen of Troy, Steep Theatre Company
Nicole Wiesner in First Ladies, Trap Door Theatre

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Jessie Fisher in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / PLAY

Brian Perry in Shining City, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL

Courtney Crouse in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTNG ROLE / PLAY

Sara Pavlak in Agnes of God, Hubris Productions

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL OR REVUE

Kate Harris in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

NEW WORK

Emily Schwartz for The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group

NEW ADAPTATION

Robert Kauzlaric for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

CHOREOGRAPHY

Brenda Didier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

ORIGINAL INCIDENTAL MUSIC

Chris Gingrich, Henry Riggs, Thea Lux, and Tara Sissom That Sordid Little Story,  The New Colony

MUSIC DIRECTION

Austin Cook for Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

SCENIC DESIGN

Alan Donahue for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Jared Moore for No Exit, The Hypocrites

COSTUME DESIGN

Matt Guthier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Alison Siple for Cabaret, The Hypocrites

SOUND DESIGN

Mikhail Fiksel for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

ARTISTIC SPECIALIZATION

Glen Aduikas, Rick Buesing, Mike Fletcher, Salvador Garcia, Stuart Hecht, David Hyman, Terry Jackson, Don Kerste, Bruce Phillips, Al Schilling, Lisi Stoessel, Eddy Wright – Robot design and engineering for Heddatron, Sideshow Theatre Company

Izumi Inaba: Makeup Design for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

  
  

REVIEW: K. (The Hypocrites)

 

Allen goes coo-coo for Kafka

 

 

The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen004

   
The Hypocrites present
   
K.
   
Written and Directed by Greg Allen
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through November 28   |  tickets: $14-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

At the last three productions I’ve seen put on by The Hypocrites, arguably the local leader in avant garde storefront, there’s been some blatant reference to the originating text. In Sean Graney’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein last year (our review ★★), the pages of numerous copies of Mary Shelley’s book were pasted on The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen001the back wall. In No Exit (review ★★★), Inez splattered toothpaste all over the set and tacked on leaves from Jean Paul-Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. And in their season opener K., translated from “The Trial”, a semi-finished novel from that proto-surrealist genius, Franz Kafka, characters read, toss around, and swear upon a tiny copy of Kafka’s chilling story. The stage adaptation and direction are the handiwork of Neo-Futurist Greg Allen, a master of metatheatricality. The production unravels in the last few scenes, but the darkly funny story is an enthralling journey. One wonders, considering that Kafka died before finishing “The Trial” (or any novels, really), if this is sort of the point.

Allen first penned his adaptation in 1996. “K.” is Josef K., Kafka’s unwitting protagonist in his slamming critique of law, order, and bureaucracy. “The Trial” is pretty much an expressionist legal thriller, with less crime and more paperwork. K.’s monotonous life is disrupted when he is arrested one morning, but not detained and never told what offense he committed (the police don’t even know). The rest of the piece follows K.’s long, occasionally action-packed struggle to get his trial to go to trial.

 

The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen005 The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen002

Allen cherrypicks from Kafka’s plot. He hits important characters and scenes, but he streamlines the piece. This works well for the adaptation; K.’s Sisyphean legal journey is easy enough to follow and digest. Allen then plugs the gaps with a self-awareness that shocks the story into a stage life, one that is very aware that it is theatre. The actor playing K.’s father, Sean Patrick Fawcett, must yank a program from the audience to prove to K. that he is, in fact, K.’s father. A painter sells works with titles like The Hunger Artist, The Penal Colony, and The Castle. And there’s a full-on Metamorphosis moment. These choices tap into themes that both resonate with the original text and go beyond it: the nature of narrative, and reality, for that matter.

Brennan Buhl’s portrayal of K. syncs perfectly with Allen’s vision. He straddles the script, keeping one foot in the story and the other in our world. Sometimes he is charmingly aloof, making it seem like he’s part of some dark improv set—ready to joke and riff off whatever happens to him. At other crucial points, he snaps into the plot’s reality with devastating somberness. Buhl’s performance is stripped of sentimentality; his whole world is funny and inconsequential until the agonizing futility of his situation beats him into submission.

The Hypocrites - K - by Greg Allen003There are a few times when the Allen’s meta-theatre meddling fails to produce the fruit, the ending being the prime example. K. has a possibly fatal encounter with his arresting officers, but the final outcome isn’t revealed, and Buhl sucks in the audience at the last moment….except we don’t know where we’re going. We get a sort of “what happened?” moment, and I was very confused as to what actually happened. Allen’s tight focus slackens here and the moment clogs up the heavy theatrical metaphor flowing through the piece.

Buhl is joined by a great supporting cast who all jump into a massive gumbo of personas. They do great things with Chelsea Warren’s set, which features plenty of doors to shift around, open, and slam. There’s an energy present here that isn’t seen often today, one that doesn’t mock the fact that theatre is happening, but lovingly accepts the art form while pushing its limits. Even with K.’s misfires, Allen has created riveting, intellectual theatre.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Brennan Buhl - Hypocrites Theatre - Greg Allen

Continue reading

Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

Continue reading

REVIEW: 2,000 Feet Away (Steep Theatre)

Sex offender drama criticizes but struggles to connect

 

2000-feet-away-poster

 
Steep Theatre presents
 
2,000 Feet Away
 
Written by Anthony Weigh
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 26th | tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Anthony Weigh’s 2,000 Feet Away isn’t your ordinary pedophile play; this time, the criminals are the victims. In the town of Eldon, Iowa, fear and paranoia drive citizens to terrorizing local sex offenders, and state legislation requires the criminals to stay 2,000 feet away from schools, parks, libraries, and bus stops. Sex offenders are forced out of their homes and into repulsive motels barely good enough for arson.  The play’s only erotic encounter between an adult and child shows the youth as more of an instigator 2000-feet-02than a victim, and an 18 year old boy is exiled for having sex with his girlfriend. Weigh has bold ideas regarding sexual crime in America, but never quite develops a solid plot and characters for his ideas to manifest through.

Weigh’s Eldon doesn’t feel like a real town but rather a collection of convenient personalities to assign philosophies to. His witch-hunting Iowans bare little resemblance to our libertarian-leaning western neighbors, and don’t have much personality beyond their one-dimensional stances on the issue of sexual crime. Why Eldon is packed to the gills with pedophiles is never explained, and makes the location seem like a cheap way to connect the play to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” an image that appears throughout the production.

There is an obvious sentimental attachment Weigh has to Wood’s painting, but its prevalence in the play is never made quite clear. Does the stern-faced patriarch represent of the citizens of Eldon, protecting their children from predators as he protects his gothic barn? Perhaps the pair are the ghosts of an America that doesn’t exist anymore, where hard work and obedience have been replaced by sexual deviance and social injustice? Its purpose is unclear, and does little to advance the plot.

/Users/hdleemiller/Pictures/Capture One Library/Output/.IMG_6917.tif After a creepy opening scene between adult A.G. (Benjamin Sprunger) and preteen Boy (Alex Turner), 2,000 Feet Away falls into a pattern of scenes where the citizens of Eldon express their personal feelings about sex crimes to their Deputy (Brendan Melanson), scenes that suffer by telling us the character’s emotions rather than showing them through meaningful interactions. The pace during these opening scenes drags due to a lack of forward motion, but Melanson’s portrayal of a lovable loser corrupted by the world around him is a highlight of the production. When Deputy encounters Girl, the SVU tween (deceptively mature Grace Goble), the play gathers steam and the plot finally gets rolling. As Deputy looks for a home for the displaced A.G., their relationship becomes the emotional center of the play, and the actors share good chemistry on stage.

Director Jimmy McDermott does a fine job with the material at hand, but the flaws of the script hurt the momentum too severely to fully recover. The ensemble works to build relationships where Weigh’s script struggles to connect, but the pace of the piece ultimately proves its undoing.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Cabaret (The Hypocrites’)

Willkommen to a darker, sexier ‘Cabaret’

 

TheHypocrites_Cabaret_04

 
The Hypocrites Theatre presents
 
Cabaret
 

Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Directed by Matt Hawkins
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)

through May 23rd | tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The first thing you will notice about The Hypocrites’s production of Cabaret is the genderbending. The scene-stealing role of the emcee, who has been played by everyone from Joel Gray to Alan Cumming to Neil Patrick Harris, is now played by a woman (Jessie Fisher). And whereas the men always brought a certain effeminacy to the role, Fisher brings a cocky butchness without sacrificing her sensuality.

TheHypocrites_Cabaret_03 You could view this casting call as a way to pander to a more general audience, eliminating the homosexual overtones of the show’s ringmaster. But The Hypocrites’ version of the piece is still rife with in-your-face graphic gay sexuality, from the lingering kiss between the American Cliff (Michael Peters) and one of the cabaret boys to the completely unsubtle choreography, which includes a lot of mock copulation.

In fact, if anything, the choice to womanize the emcee adds an additional thematic element to the play, one that promotes the strength and courage of women and the misogyny of the Nazi state. This is most effective during the song “I Don’t Care Much.” Director Matt Hawkins places four masked Nazi soldiers around the emcee who watch her with cold, dead eyes. The emcee staggers around the stage, spitting at the men as she taunts them with the lyrics of the song, knowing full well that she is writing her own death sentence.

Fisher exudes confidence as the nightclub’s central figure She also has a clever wit, ad-libbing occasionally during some of the more light-hearted numbers such as “Willkommen.” Like her carriage on stage, her voice is vigorously energetic, proving to be one of the strongest in the cast.

Lindsay Leopold plays the manic Sally Bowles with feral-like fierceness. The character of Sally spans a spectrum of emotion, oftentimes displaying two distinct feelings at once: her external exuberance and her inner depression. Leopold straddles this spectrum well. For example, her rendition of “Cabaret” is not the joyful melody you may recall from the movie. Rather, it’s a melancholy rendition made all the more poignant when contrasted with the upbeat lyrics.

The costumes in the musical are basically a character unto themselves. Costume designer Alison Siple creates a cohesive aesthetic that combines ruffles and rags with garters and lace. The women look simply fantastic. However, the men did not get the same treatment. Whereas the women’s flamboyant costumes genuinely reflect the sexy cabaret atmosphere, the men’s costumes seem more like cartoonish afterthoughts.

TheHypocrites_Cabaret_05 TheHypocrites_Cabaret_06

Hawkins direction is superb. The play moves along quickly, juggling various plotlines from the rise of the Nazi regime to Sally’s love affair with Cliff to the engagement of the landlady Frau Schneider. But it never feels hurried. The staging is also impressive. At the beginning of the play, the cabaret girls make grand entrances by sliding down poles, while near the end, the faceless Nazi guards stand menacingly along the catwalk above the stage.

The play is also done in a cabaret setting, providing ample intimacy for the audience and performers. Although most of the audience is relegated to risers, a few lucky patrons are able to sit at tables along the stage.

The Hypocrites Theatre’s production of Cabaret is dark, sexy and fabulous. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see the play in an intimate, cabaret-like setting, this is your chance. With great direction, singing and revealing costumes, the show will titillate and entertain before crash-landing into its inevitable, disturbing conclusion.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

TheHypocrites_Cabaret_02

       

Review: Court Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep”

Just go see it. Now.

Irma Vep4 Irma Vep9

Court Theatre presents:

The Mystery of Irma Vep

by Charles Ludlam
directed by Sean Graney
thru December 13th (ticket info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Irma Vep 1 Productions like Court Theatre‘s The Mystery of Irma Vep are the reason why theater will always survive as an art form. The rush of watching two actors play multiple characters in a live setting with rapid fire costume (and gender) changes while telling a story about werewolves, vampires, ancient Egyptian princesses, and missing wives is unbelievable. This is an experience that you can’t find at the movies, can’t stream on YouTube, and can’t download to your PS3. The amount of energy required to successfully pull off Charles Ludlam‘s penny dreadful is astounding, and Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan give masterful performances as the play’s six characters. Whether they’re playing "The Last Rose of Summer" on dulcimers, crawling over audience members transported to the pyramids of Cairo, or fondling mummified breasts, the actors never drop their energy, and the result is two of the most hilarious and exhilarating hours seen on the Chicago stage this season.

Sean Graney has established himself as one of the city’s best directors when it comes to high energy, high manic productions, and the fact that he can seamlessly transition from a heartwarming children’s theater production like The 100 Dresses (our review) to the risque, raunchy Irma Vep while maintaining a consistent directorial voice is mind boggling. Graney loves to get his actors in the audience at some point during his productions, and a scene where Hellman, as widowed archaeologist Lord Edgar, and Sullivan, as Muppet-browed Egyptian tour guide Alcazar, move through the rows of the house on their way to the stage at the start of Act II is a riot. Graney tears down the barrier between audience and actor, and Hellman sat on the laps of my guest and I, offered me his hand as he reached across audience members to shake Sullivan’s, and leapt over bags and jackets in the aisles, never dropping character.

Irma Vep2 Irma Vep7
Irma Vep5 Irma Vep11

Hellman and Sullivan are two of the sharpest actors in Chicago theater, and they are insanely good in this production. Their vocal work is spot on, playing with exaggerated dialects and wildly varied pitches, and their physical work is outstanding. Casting a man of Chris Sullivan‘s size as the ingenue Lady Enid is guaranteed funny, but Sullivan captures the femininity of the character so well that the humor is amplified. The same goes for Hellman, playing the maid Jane with a hilarious mix of dainty, dirty, and sassy. But what makes these actors so phenomenal is their commitment to the world of the play. Hellman is supposed to dust everything, and he dusts everything: chairs, flowers, walls, books, footlights. Sullivan is handed a Pringle at the end of the play and delivers the line "I have a Pringle" with such seriousness that the viewer can’t help but wonder the symbolic importance of the potato chip. And the aforementioned dulcimer duet is bizarre yet completely captivating; the entire house sat in awed silence until the absurdity of the situation awakened hysterical laughter.

A show like Irma Vep has a huge "How’d they do that?!" factor, and Graney answers any questions about how such a technically complex show is put together with an absolutely genius final scene. The actors take the stage for the last time, but they are joined by the backstage crew and the production’s most valuable player: the costume rack. As the two men tie up the loose ends of Ludlam’s ridiculous plot they switch between characters and costumes on stage, stripping away illusion and revealing the magic that goes on behind the scenes. It’s an amazing sequence that is further amplified by the actors’ commitment to their roles, juxtaposing the actor’s job of creating reality with the inherent artifice of theater that is being presented to the audience. It’s intelligent, it’s hilarious, it’s brilliant. And that is The Mystery of Irma Vep in a nutshell.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

Irma Vep3 Irma Vep10

 Creative Team

Sean Graney – Director
Jack Magaw – Scenic Designer
Alison Siple – Costume Designer
Heather Gilbert – Lighting Designer
MIchael Griggs – Sound Designer
Ellen Hay – Production Stage Manager
Sara Gammage – Stage Manager

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