Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Arabian Nights

Also see Susan's review of Cymbeline

Spellbinding may be too obvious a word to use for Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of The Arabian Nights now at Arena Stage's Fichandler Stage in Washington, but it's the word that fits. Zimmerman and her 14 performers hypnotize the audience as surely as Scheherezade (Stacey Yen) captivates the murderous King Shahryar (David DeSantos).

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 tales—always 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.

Arena Stage
The Arabian Nights
January 14th —February 20th
Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman
Adapted from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, translated by Powys Mathers
In association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and Lookingglass Theatre Company
Harun al-Rashid: Barzin Akhavan
Madman: Usman Ally
Greengrocer, Robber: Terence Archie
King Shahryar: David DeSantos
Slave Girl: Minita Gandhi
Scheherezade's Father, Ishak of Mosul: Allen Gilmore
Butcher, Sympathy the Learned: Susaan Jamshidi
Poor Man, Musician: Ronnie Malley
Clarinetist, Sage: Luis Moreno
Dunyazade, Azizah: Maureen Sebastian
Perfect Love, The Other Woman: Nicole Shalhoub
Jafar, Sheik al-Fadl: Louis Tucci
Scheherezade: Stacey Yen
Sheik al-Islam, Abu al-Hasan: Evan Zes
Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Stan Barouh

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