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april 2009

Scene4 Magazine: "Arabian Nights" reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig

by Catherine Conway Honig

Theatre and opera director Mary Zimmerman concocts her uniquely thrilling works by mining her childlike ability to play throughout the creative process. A description of her theatre rehearsals sounds like a bunch of kids playing theatre in her backyard, with Mary playing the bossy one, and the others trusting her to guide them in the creation of something magical. When working on a theatrical production she almost never works from a script, but throws various images, ideas, and themes at a group of carefully selected actors whom she trusts completely. At the end of the rehearsal period comes a work of extraordinary imagination and unfettered playfulness. In fact, watching "Arabian Nights" at Berkeley Repertory last month as it wore on to nearly three hours, I thought how much more fun it would be to be with the actors on stage rather than confined to a seat in the audience. The ensemble danced, sang, played various percussion instruments, sprawled together on the floor, played with each others' hair and generally cavorted on a stage set as inviting as a warm and cozy Kasbah. A spirit of wide-eyed presence permeated each scene, infusing the piece with a feeling of improvisation and expectation in the audience, as well.

As the lights dimmed in the house of the intimate and steeply raked Thrust Stage, giant, ornate hanging lanterns slowly descended to illuminate not only the stage but the entire house, inviting the audience in for a closer look. What at first appeared to be a ransacked warehouse space with dust colored sheets covering every surface, or perhaps a hilly desert scene, was transformed by the actors who stripped away the drab fabric to reveal layers of colorful Persian rugs and groupings of low tables as drummers slowly took the stage playing looping rhythms. These opening moments portended well for the ability of this ensemble to grab hold of an audience. Everyone in the theatre leaned forward in anticipation of what was about to happen.     

The story behind "Arabian Nights" is among the oldest and most recognizable stories in the global canon. A lonely king, having been spurned by his wife for another man, takes a virgin bride every evening and, to prevent further betrayals, kills her in the morning. The clever Scheherazade and her silly sister are hence taken from their father and imprisoned by the king expecting that he will execute them.  

Stories about the centuries of controversy that surround these tales add yet another layer to the story-within-a-story that is "Arabian Nights." Because the original tales were passed on through oral tradition there is no extant text so writers and storytellers have adapted, augmented, expanded and contracted the tales while others have used them as the inspiration for new works based on the concept of ever-expanding stories. (One of my favorites is Jan Potocki's 18th century novel, "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa." Like "One Thousand and One Nights," this novel's provenance is shrouded in mystery. The interwoven stories that comprise the novel are filled with magic, intrigue and magnetic relationships in alluring settings that pose multiple solved and unsolved mysteries and riddles.) 

It's no wonder this project appealed to Mary Zimmerman's playful creativity. She originally presented it in Berkeley in 1992, just after the first Gulf War, and reworked it for its recent sold-out and extended run. Free of the constraints of a text, inspired by the historical as well as current political upheavals in the Middle East, she also found a psychological appeal in the work. In an interview she said, "these stories are filled with buried treasure."  


The threat of destruction is daily present at dawn for Scheherazade (played by Sophia Jean Gomez) as King Shahryar (Ryan Artzberger)  holds a sharp and shiny blade to her long and lovely neck. But wait! She convinces him to keep her around for another night so she can resolve one tale and begin another before the next day dawns.  


The stage exploded with action for each of her long, twisting tales. A cast of nine male and six female actors and musicians made up the ensemble along with a battery of drummers, all of them clad in blousy layers of colorful fabric. The stories themselves contained Shakespeare-esque cases of mistaken identity, plays on words, political, philosophical and religious morals as well as slapstick physical comedy.

One of the weakest of Zimmerman's choices was to develop a slapstick fart story—one she claimed in an interview to have specifically brought into the rehearsal process. The overlong gag built upon the sing-song repetition of "Shouldn't have eaten those chickpeas!" as the actors took turns imitating loud long farts. Though two or three people in the audience found it hilarious, I enjoyed it as much as I would have someone repeatedly twanging an out-of-tune violin over and over again. The ensemble mugged and egged each other on and on and on as the first act lumbered toward 100 minutes.  


The "Tale of the Wonderful Bag" placed us in a bazaar where two men argued over ownership of a bag. A mediator declared the owner would of course be able to say what the bag contained and relied upon the improvisation abilities of the actors and inspired lots of interesting comparative conversations among people who attended the play throughout its extended run. The night I attended the actor found "A white house with a black man and change you can believe in" in his bag. (The audience exploded with appreciative applause as it was one week before the inauguration of President Barack Obama and therefore the end of the Bush years.) The small cloth bag was ultimately a metaphor for the infinite capability of imagination, one of the central themes of the play.  

Movement and dance play an important part in Zimmerman's work and the actors claim to find this aspect of her process the most challenging. It is also challenging for the audience but for different reasons. A choreographer might use improvisation to mine dancers' ideas and then develop and structure that material created through improvisation into movement phrases that build tension and resolve. Zimmerman's process yielded something closer to a jam session or giddy dancers at a concert. Once a dance section began it would settle into a simple rhythm repeated over and over. The effect was ultimately soporific, although the sensuality of the moving bodies, the pounding rhythms and the swaying fabric felt inviting and inclusive like a party on a sunny afternoon in a public park. All of these sections could be truncated without any loss to the overall piece.


Among many outstanding performances by the ensemble members, several of whom portrayed multiple characters, Alana Arena displayed the breadth of her formidable acting skills as "Sympathy the Learned" as she recited long sections of the Koran that refer to the treatment of women, gently but unrelentingly chiding men for their misinterpretations. Barzin Akhavan's warm and alluring Harun al Rashin brought depth and wisdom to his appearances in many of the stories.

Zimmerman's Sheherazade is a multi-dimensional wise woman who slyly shares her stories and the lessons they hold. Beyond the ribald physical stunts and multiple political references woven ingeniously throughout they play, ultimately two things matter most. Sheherazade escapes death and proves that she and her stories must live on. Each of us has our stories, as do our families and our era, "Arabian Nights" reminds us that we have an individual and collective stake in telling our version as if our lives depended on it.   

Zimmerman has lately worked with the Metropolitan Opera to create new productions of Bellini's "La Sonnambula" and Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," which premiered last year but was presented again this season on the stage and through the simulcast known as "The Met: Live in HD." This ingenious program enables people all over the world to watch the productions through the transmission of high-quality video to 850 movie theatres in nearly 30 countries. Zimmerman's "Lucia di Lammermoor" aired last month with the beautiful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the title role and an amazing last minute appearance by Piotr Beczala as Edgardo. (He was asked to step-in the night before because Rolando Villazón was once again plagued by illness.)   


Zimmerman travelled to Scotland with her long-time collaborator and set designer Dan Ostling to create vivid and evocative sets for the opera's three acts. Not wanting to be confined to the late 1700's, the period when the original novel by Sir Walter Scott is set, she instead created a Victorian era Scotland. This era, she felt, better reflected the theme of thwarted female sexual desire leading to mental disintegration.   

In Act I we find Lucia defying her bullying brother to meet with Edgardo, a member of the Ravenswood clan with whom Lucia's family has engaged in a centuries-old family feud. Risking everything, Lucia and her pleading maid sneak out onto a barren heath before daybreak. The simple set, with its barren trees and an abandoned fountain under a bright purple sky, evokes the treacherous damp cold of a dark Scottish morning.  Netrebko is fragile and beautiful in spite of a heavy coat and dress that look to weigh several hundred pounds. From the moment she appears on stage she pulls the audience into her overwhelming feelings of paranoia and doom, alternating with blissful hope for happiness with her beloved Edgardo.  


In interviews about creating this production Zimmerman spoke about the differing interpretations of Lucia's mental state. Is she mentally ill or is she haunted by ghosts? Isn't it explanation enough to have been born a woman either in the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, orphaned, and left to struggle against the  tyrannies of a brutal brother who has squandered the family fortune and now expects her to marry for money and support him? Zimmerman leaves the question somewhat open by having a hideously pale and thin apparition frighten Lucia in the opening act by swirling around then disappearing into the latent fountain, a reference to a woman who once fell into the fountain after being stabbed by a Ravenswood. This is the only overt reference to the supernatural influences at work on poor Lucia's lucidity. Through captivating voice and gestures, Netrebko clearly communicates her vacillation between the strength of her belief in the power of her love for Edgardo and her feelings of impending doom. And indeed she does not need the help of exterior influences and distractions. In spite of Edgardo's promise of love ever-lasting, and their secret marriage at the end of Act One, Lucia is plagued by worry, especially when, in Act Two, her brother (played with hateful and unrelenting villainy by Marius Kwiecien) rages, threatens and torments her into promising to save the family by marrying an as yet unseen wealthy suitor. For this famous confrontation Zimmerman sets them in a castle, based on Sir Walter Scott's own, with monstrously high ceilings, paned windows showing only darkness outside, and a generally gloomy atmosphere.  


The final act is Zimmerman's and Netrebko's masterpiece. A joyous crowd gathers beneath an enormous sweeping staircase for the impending wedding of Lucia to her brother's chosen one. What the crowd doesn't know is that a) Lucia has already married Edgardo, who has returned to extend his hand in peace to her brother and discovered that she is to marry another, and b) Lucia has killed the wealthy suitor. The party rolls on with Zimmerman moving the crowd as expertly as the great film directors until  Lucia appears at the top of the stairs in a blood-soaked wedding gown.    

Netrebko's interpretation of this famous mad scene is devastating in her vocal expression as well as physical dissolution. In last year's world premiere of this same production, Natalie Dessay, portrays her madness and grief through a series of full-body jerks and undulations. Netrebko chooses instead to melt and ooze like the blood on her dress as she slowly descends the treacherous stairway into the shocked crowd. When, in a Romeo and Juliet-like finale, Edgardo appears and commits suicide with her, I don't think I was alone in feeling absolutely drained and exhausted by the power of the sustained emotional trauma expressed by the ruined lovers.     

Mary Zimmerman's poetic and imaginative direction inspires deep emotion and dreamy expressions of melancholy and longing for more from people who fall under her spell. Speaking about Zimmerman's Tony-award winning "Metamorphoses" playwright, actress and theatre director Sands Hall said, "Weeping, I could not move from my seat for minutes after the show came down. It seemed to me to be simultaneously speaking to why we do theatre, why we love, why we are on the planet at all, and to the wisdom of these ancient myths, their power to not only teach us but to transform, to meta-morph us all." And to think that Zimmerman does all of this while playing like a child among friends in the bright midsummer sunshine.   





Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of Arabian Nights
courtesy of
Lucia di Lammermoor
courtesy of Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.


©2009 Catherine Conway Honig
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in
the San Francisco Bay Area

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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