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

Theater Thursday: “Arabian Nights” at Lookingglass

Thursday, May 21

Arabian Nights
Lookingglass Theatre
Michigan Ave. and Pearson., Chicago

arabiannightsFresh from sold-out runs at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Tony Award-winner Mary Zimmerman‘s The Arabian Nights returns to Lookingglass for a limited run. This stunning theatrical piece incorporates powerful storytelling, lush visuals and vibrant music to weave a rich tapestry from one of the world’s most enduring works of literature. The event begins with a reception catered by Il Mulino. Lookingglass artists will lead a discussion, offering unique insight into the production, beginning with its inception during the first Gulf War.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m. Show begins at 7:30 p.m.
TICKETS ONLY $30
For reservations call 312.337.0665 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

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All Theater Thursday postings sponsored by this fine entertainment accessory retailer.

What happens in Chicago goes to Kansas City?

About Face Theatre’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ Musical Opens in KC

Broadway’s Nancy Anderson, Leslie Dennison, James Judy and Geoff Packard are in the cast of 13. Previews began March 13.

Eric Rosen, who wrote book and lyrics for Winesburg, Ohio, directs the musical based on the novel of the same name by Sherwood Anderson about the desire, hopes and dreams of this small Midwestern town’s residents. Performances continue through April 5th at Spence Theatre, one of the performances spaces of Kansas City Repertory Theatre .

The project marks the final Kansas City production of beloved local musical director Molly Jessup, who died March 15 at the age of 66, after a battle with cancer. The music (and additional lyrics) by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman “is based on a century-old American folk style that is steeped in the land and the people of the Midwest and evokes memories of earlier and simpler times.”  

The show was conceived by and developed in collaboration with Jessica Thebus. Winesburg, Ohio had a successful run in Chicago, where it was created, and received a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play. A subsequent production in Philadelphia won the Barrymore Award for Best Musical.

 The cast of Winesburg, Ohio includes Nancy Anderson (Broadway’s Wonderful Town) as Alice Hindman; Lesley Bevan (of the show’s world premiere for About Face/Steppenwolf Theatre and the Arden Theatre production in Philadelphia) as Kate Swift; Leslie Dennison (of Broadway’s City of Angels) as Elizabeth Willard; Seth Golay (the Rep’s A Christmas Carol, The Pirates of Penzance and The Front Page) as Seth Richmond; Gary Holcombe (the Rep’s in The Drawer Boy) as Wing Biddlebaum; Gary Neal Johnson (an artistic associate at the Rep who has appeared in many productions) as Tom Willard; James Judy (Broadway’s Into the Woods) as The Writer; Jessalyn Kincaid (making her Rep debut) as Young Elizabeth; resident actress Ashlee LaPine (Our Town at Coterie Theatre ) as Helen White; Geoff Packard (an understudy in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera and the national tour of Wicked) as George Willard; Chicago actor Jeff Parker as Rev. Curtis Hartman, a role he created for the original Steppenwolf Theatre Arts Exchange production and the full-length version for About Face Theatre; Bruce Roach (the Rep’s A Christmas Carol and To Kill a Mockingbird) as Joe Welling; John-Michael Zuerlein (making his Rep debut) as Enoch.

The musicians are Ryan Fisher (guitar I), Aaron Fry (guitar II), Michalis Koutsoupides (conductor/piano), Rick Willoughby (bass) and Michael Winer (violin). All but Fisher, who is from Chicago, are Kansas City performers.

The creative team for Winesburg, Ohio is Molly Jessup (music director), Jack Magaw (set designer), Janice Pytel (costume designer), David Lander (lighting designer), Joshua Horvath (sound designer) and Jennifer Martin (choreographer).

For more information call the Rep box office at (816) 235-2700 or visit www.kcrep.org.

Courtesy of Kenneth Jones of Playbill Online. Photo by Don Ipock Photography

Related articles:

New Musical “Winesburg, Ohio” Opens at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, infozine.com

Winesburg, Ohio Opens At Kansas City Rep On 3/20, BroadwayWorld.com