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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Arabian Nights
Lookingglass Theatre Company

Also see Richard's review of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Cast of The Arabian Nights
Is it possible to remember the days when the first thought we might associate with Arabia was The Arabian Nights rather than war? There's a definite sadness when one hears Baghdad described in this play as a city of poets—an oasis of art and reason for the Middle Ages. Mary Zimmerman's adaptation, first performed by Lookingglass in 1992, takes on the more adult tales of Scheherazade. There's no Aladdin, Sinbad or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in this version. Instead we have earthy, yet not crude, stories of lust and desire. It's a rich depiction of a literary tradition in the middle east of that era.

The company first produced it in 1992, just three years after their founding. It was remounted in 1997 and this production is completing a three-city tour that included engagements at the Berkeley Repertory and the Kansas City Repertory before returning to Lookingglass's home in Chicago. A fine ensemble cast is showcased, with enough opportunity for stand-out cameos for just about all of them. Zimmerman's direction has the cast fluidly switching among roles as well as moving as an ensemble to depict crowds or even inanimate objects.

She keeps the story of Scheherezade as the overall framework. After King Shahryar (Ryan Artzburger) has been cuckolded by his young bride, he determines to never allow that to happen again. He weds and beds a different bride each night, only to kill her when the morning comes. After the populace catches on to this, the families with young daughters flee, leaving only Scheherezade (Louise Lamson) and her younger sister Dunyazade (Heidi Stillman), daughters of the King's counselor (Allen Gilmore), available for marriage. Scheherezade has a plan, though: engross the King by telling him stories with puzzling cliffhangers so that he will have to allow her to live another day to tell their conclusions and leave him wanting more. Lamson and Artzburger are compelling as the central figures—she's compassionate and wily, he's heartbreakingly melancholy and frightening all at once.

Zimmerman's version of Scheherezade's legend focuses on five stories, two of which include stories within stories which the young woman use to keep the King hooked and listening. The first is a tale of a merchant who is tricked into marrying a hideously ugly woman by another woman he slighted many years earlier. Usman Ally plays the merchant, called the Madman because the woman he offended (Nicole Shalhoub) has placed him in a madhouse in exchange for ending his marriage. Ally is a charismatic performer, and his narration of the tale commands our attention and gets the evening off to a solid start. His story is followed by a lighter one in which a Jester is given a wife as a reward, but the wife is unfaithful with five servants of the royal court. When the infidelities are discovered by the King, the paramours are sentenced to emasculation, but each manages to earn clemency by telling the king a tale. In this segment, Allen Gilmore has a great comic turn as the simple Jester, and the five paramours (Andrew White, David Catlin, Susaan Jamshidi Ramiz Monsef, and Ronnie Malley) each get their moment to regale us and the King.

The 90-minute first act is followed by an equally long second act that includes the story of Sympathy the Learned (Jamshidi), a brilliant young woman who challenges and outsmarts all the wise men of the court and rejects the marriage proposal of the King (Barzin Akhavan). At one point, when one of the wise men tries to embarrass her by asking her to describe copulation, she responds with an answer that is lovely and poetic—not graphic about the act itself, but describing the best things about the ways it makes us feel. This bittersweet tale is followed by the story of Abu al-Hasan (Andrew White) whose unfortunate fart (lasting at least five minutes in actual stage time and being performed sequentially by several actors) becomes a moment marked in his community's history.

The final tale performed by this company tells of King Harun al-Rashid's incognito visit among the commoners, where he meets a man (Artzburger) successfully posing as the monarch in response to great sadness in his life. It's this tale that finally inspires Shahryar to greater compassion. Zimmerman concludes the storytelling with the entire company telling tales simultaneously to show the breadth of stories told over Scheherezade's 1001 nights. Shahryar is ultimately redeemed through the storytelling of his bride, his melancholy is broken and he promises his undying love and vows not to murder her.

The play is a spectacular tribute to the literary tradition of these legends, and an insightful if fanciful look at lust and love. The costumes of Mara Blumenfeld USA are simple but sumptuous and Dan Ostling's sets use Persian rugs and other simple props to suggest this faraway place and time. The Arabian Nights, is a display of the power of stagecraft to take us away, though at 3 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission and without a particularly strong dramatic arc, it does feel like quite a lot of a good thing.

The Arabian Nights will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., at Lookingglass Theatre, inside Chicago's historic Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. at Pearson. through July 12, 2009. For tickets, visit; call 312-337-0665.

Photo: Sean Williams

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