The Arabian NIghts -- Then & Now
In what wondrous time would Bagdad be called the City of Peace and Poets, when a disguised king could walk its streets and not be recognized, when an extraordinary woman scholar could engage in a contest of knowledge and defeat a king's court of academicians and she could have the chutzpah to refuse the king's marriage proposal, and when could another young woman stave off her death night after night by telling bawdy and learned stories to a man hell bent on taking revenge for a cuckolding wife? That time, of course, would be the one thousand and one Arabian nights of Scheherazade.
THE OCCASIONAL AMBUSH
On January 28, 2011, the Dresser basked in the soul-redeeming imagery, music, dance, and tales spun by Mary Zimmerman's play The Arabian Nights in performance through February 20, 2011, at the Fichandler Theatre of the newly renovated Arena Stage in Washington, DC. If you, Dear Reader, think this is throwback in time, be prepared for an unexpected bomb from the modern day world here and there. The Dresser, days after seeing the performance, is still marveling how playwright Zimmerman managed to thread these startling, sometimes-comic but more-often-tragic, details into the landscape of the medieval Middle East. Sorry, but she isn't planning to spoil the author's ambushes.
The Arabian Nights is based on One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern and south Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age (mid-8th century to mid-13th century). Like Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which were both influenced by One Thousand and One Nights, Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights has outrageous scenarios like the case of the merchant who exacted an unending fart.
MIMES & BODY TRICKS
Stacey Yen at Scheherazade remains particularly vivid in the Dresser's mind because of her mirroring antics. In a number of instances, Yen, as Scheherazade, begins telling a story that is picked up by another actor who then speaks while Yen mimes behind that new character. In general, movement of the performers often becomes a precision exercise that works well on the Fichandler's theater-in-the-round stage. Adding to the excitement of the movement/dance are drummers and oud and flute players. If any of this sounds like a circus, just wait until you see the marvelous Greengrocer (Terence Archie) who flirts with alternate movement of his pecs, a kind of upper body version of belly dancing.
In her poem "The Miller's Daughter," Barbara Louise Ungar explores the plight of another young woman who will be killed by a king unless she appeases him. In Ungar's poem, the young woman has to spin straw instead of stories to stay alive. She also has to outwit the angry dwarf Rumpelstiltskin. The Dresser wonders how many of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights were written by women. Certainly Zimmerman's play The Arabian Nights is about many strong women.
THE MILLER'S DAUGHTER
You appeared to help me spin
straw to gold. I promised, in
desperation. Little Man of Steel,
you call yourself: steel your hair,
steel your face, steely your
will to have your pound
of flesh. Hidden in your dark
house under the hill, you fondle
your hoard; at the forge you smelt
simulacra of my cunte.
A Mack truck, you'd love
to run me over. And over,
like a snake in your drive.
But I've become a clever Queane:
I've learnt your real name
so you can't steal my son--
go stamp your steel-toed boot
and tear yourself in two.
by Barbara Louise Ungar
from Charlotte Brontë: You Ruined My Life
Copyright © 2011 Barbara Louise Ungar
Photo of Stacey Yen (Scheherazade) & David DeSantos (King Shahryar) by Stan Barouh.
Photo of cast in Scheherazade's wedding procession by Stan Barouh.