The Arabian Nights, first written and directed by Mary Zimmerman for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company is an imaginative, daring collection of the stories of Scheherezade, adapted from The Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night.
In this production at Silver Spring Stage, directed by Jacy D’Aiutolo, Scheherezade is a beautiful storyteller played by Jacqueline Chenault. Zimmerman captures the essence of the Arabian tales that aren’t as well-known as Ali Baba and the 40 Theives in which Scheherezade masterfully tells in order to save her life from her maddening husband and vicious ruler, Shahryar, masterfully played by Terry Spann. From the top of the show, the audience is collectively introduced to a world of celebratory fun enriched with lively music, dancing, and a warm Middle Eastern cultural vibe inviting us to come join the performers for an evening of entrancing storytelling. The Arabian Nights is an infamous tale of a king who finds his wife betraying him with another lover and ends up killing her. His plan is to marry a new virgin wife every night only to behead her at dawn so he will never have to experience betrayal of love again. Chenault gives a down-to-earth, clever portrayal of Scheherezade by creating a plan in order to help save her life and keep her king happy. Finally, when Scheherezade and the king are to be married, she tells him seducing stories all night before the marriage, but often trailing off in cliffhanging moments to help spare her life leaving the king yearning for more.
In the Perifidy of Wives, Catherine Oh plays a witty, charming mistress wife who betrays her husband with a Pastrycook, a Butcher, a Greengrocer, and a Clarinetist. Because of these unfaithful moments, each lover tells a tale to redeem themselves after a spellbinding curse is placed on every townswoman.
Improvisation on The Wonderful Bag (The Greengrocer’s Tale) is a fun little duel played between Leigh K. Rawls, and Karen V. Lawrence in a fighting match to see who wins the wonderful bag. These two townspeople interlock in a match as a way to convince the other as the winner of the wonderful bag by naming all the wonders inside. It was interesting to hear modern references made to Harold and the Purple Crayon, spotting Dr. Seuss’s one fish, two fish, to finding N-Sync and the Backstreet Boys, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and the TV show, Lost, to an entire Planetarium containing the Milky Way, as well as mentioning the audience members of Silver Spring, Maryland. Although I thoroughly enjoyed hearing these modern references being tossed around, I was slightly confused as to the director’s choice in allowing the actors to take them outside of context of the story.
Zimmerman captures the essence of the Arabian tales…
Zimmerman throws in a hilariously tragic tale of Abu al-Hassan, in Abu al-Hassan’s Historic Indiscretion, (The Clarinetist’s Tale), which is about a man cast away from his city with a chorus of women singing to a rhyme “ he shouldn’t have eaten those chickpeas.” Poor Abu al-Hassan is wildly mocked by the townspeople, claiming, “My fart has become a date on the calendar!”
Act 1 ends with a passionate kiss shared between the king and Scheherezade before we are announced that it is intermission.
Act 2 begins with an intriguing tale, Sympathy the Learned where we are introduced to a bright, intelligent lady, Sympathy played by Julia Morrisey. Sympathy’s philosophy of her faith, religion, God, even copulation, and all views of life are all being put to a test by several gentlemen. Morrisey carries her own with presence and conviction as an individual who turns the tables on each gentleman probing her with questions, including a Master of Riddles, and a King. In turn, she questions them, and ends up rightfully earning their robes of status and position. When it comes down to the final match, the chemistry between Sympathy and the king is sizzling and in a way, beautifully balanced. Morrisey’s cool, calm and collective exterior composure becomes a façade for her underlying currents of passionate unyielding vessels of knowledge. This in turn automatically hooks the proud king who’s hot-blooded nature for her builds him up into an impassioned, “Will you marry me and be my queen?!”
The Mock Kalifah is a story of appreciating true, unconditional love, learning how to grow within phases of true love, how to honestly nuture and cherish it, and how to truly experience the feelings of grief if love becomes lost. Azizah, again played by Lawrence, portrays a virtuous lady who loves her cousin, played by Spann so unconditionally she leads him into finding his future beloved who puts him through a series of tests and signals, only Azizah can help him figure out. Once he has passed the final test, Azizah tells him repeatedly to never betray his beloved. Azizah dies from unrequited love and as her cousin does not show his true grief for her death, he runs into forbidden love betraying his beloved.
Although Director, Jacy D’Aiutolo has some effective staging moments of having the ensemble as various animals, double cast roles, and/or audience members playing as musicians throughout the production, there were some challenging moments of losing some of the plot as an audience member. There could have been more directorial choices given to the actors to play with. Some of the most essential lines in the script were lost which was distracting for an audience member in such an intimate space.
Previously in interviews, Zimmerman expressed her choice for writing her adaptation of The Arabian Nights because of all the vast human emotions the tales allow us to deeply become in touch with. Zimmerman believed in highlighting the similarities between cultures and how all cultures can agree upon the most basic human values we can all cherish-love, success, safety, and family.
Running Time: Two Hours and thirty minutes with one-15 min intermission
Advisory: Adult themes are suggested.
The Arabian Nights plays through June 7 2014th at Silver Spring Stage, which is located at 10145 Colesville Rd. Silver Spring MD 20901. For ticket info click here.