Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Arabian Nights
Also see Susan's review of Cymbeline
The program notes describe how the work known most often as The Thousand and One Nights was assembled gradually, over centuries, from oral and literary traditions representing numerous civilizations. They vary widely in tone from erotic and philosophical to broad, scatological, and just plain silly (one story, "The Wonderful Bag," is improvised by different cast members at each performance), but together produce a richly satisfying experience.
The framework of the story is familiar: King Shahryar, upon discovering that his wife has a lover, kills both of them and sets out to revenge himself on all women. Each day he marries a young virgin, takes her to bed, then kills her the next morning. Scheherezade, a skillful storyteller, staves off the threat to her life by spinning elaborate tales within talesalways ending with a cliffhanger just as dawn breaks, causing the king to spare her life for, as he thinks, just one more day.
And, oh, the stories! Just as Zimmerman selected some of the lesser-known Greek myths for her visionary work Metamorphoses, here she avoids the most familiar stories of genies, flying carpets, and so forth. The audience meets a madman (Usman Ally) who must learn a lesson about kindness before he can possess his Perfect Love (Nicole Shalhoub); a woman with four lovers, each of whom has a story to share; Sympathy the Learned (Susaan Jamshidi), the wisest woman in the world; and many others. No one performer stands out in this company; they form a single unit, a living organism with many faces and voices.
The magic of Zimmerman's vision begins with Daniel Ostling's scenic design, creating a world from a bare stage just as Scheherezade's words animate a universe of people and animals. The cast members enter from the four corners of the Fichandler Stage and, to an accompaniment of drumming, unroll carpets and set out small pieces of furniture as numerous hanging lamps descend from the ceiling. Mara Blumenfeld's lavish costumes (one speaker tells a nobleman how fine he looks in his "upholstery"), T.J. Gerckens' otherworldly lighting design, and the sound design and original music by André Pluess draw the viewer deeper and deeper into the shared illusion.