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Hopkins Players Winningly--If Unevenly--Tackle An Old Postmodern Text

SHE DON'T USE BELLY: Kateri Chambers (right) calms Michel Simon in Arabian Nights.

By John Barry | Posted 6/18/2008

Arabian Nights

Adapted by Mary Zimmerman

At Theatre Hopkins through June 29

With the opening of Arabian Nights, playwright/adapter Mary Zimmerman tries hard to make you forget you're in a theater at all. The floor is lined with overlapping Persian rugs and surrounded by wooden benches. A saxophone player (Anna Meadors) walks out and sits on the edge of the stage and begins to play a flowing, haunting melody (composed for this production by Kevin Clark). The audience is, more or less, gathered around the campfire, watching an extended play that is a story about telling stories. And so you settle back for a night of Arabian postmodernism, circa 800 A.D.

Arabian Nights is based on a familiar conceit: Embittered Iraqi king Sharyar (Michel Simon) finds his wife in bed with a slave, he kills both of them, and then each night he marries, loves, and kills a virgin. And so he lives, until he runs into Scheherezade (Kateri Chambers) and her sister Dunyazade (Laurel Burggraf). Scheherezade is a good storyteller, which she uses to her advantage. Each night, she tells a story with enough plot twists to persuade Sharyar to keep her for one more night. Those are the terms of the contract: Whenever she runs out of sequels, she runs out of luck.

As Zimmerman makes it clear, Scheherezade isn't always at the top of her game: One of the stories ("Sympathy the Learned") is a mind-bender, another ("Abu al-Hasan") an extended fart joke. Zimmerman, who recently directed the similarly themed Argonautika at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, picks stories from the The Thousand and One Nights that are comparatively obscure: no Ali Baba or Sinbad the Sailor here. If the narratives start to overlap like the carpets, that's exactly what Zimmerman--and Scheherezade--is after. The evening thrives, and Scheherezade survives, on the subplots and sub-subplots. By the end, as you watch the appropriately named "Confusion of Stories," the barriers between the actual plots have blurred so much that the audience and characters begin to wonder what is it that drives people to tell stories in the first place.

The final story, "The Forgotten Melody," answers that question. Ishak of Mosul (Rob Douglas) hears a beautiful melody, Maabad's 43rd song. It's unspeakably beautiful to him, and to his frustration, he can't remember it. Obsessed, he racks his brain, and then travels in search of the sheik who sung it to him. He finally finds a woman who whispers the melody in his ear--then, suddenly, "the stars begin to dance, the river and its life begin to dance."

It should be clear with that line that Zimmerman is as much about choreography as about storytelling. Storytelling does become a sort of extended dance, where actors and actresses shift rolls and positions, and even improvise in search of the hidden, perfect melody.

Theatre Hopkins deserves credit for taking on a fascinating, acclaimed contemporary playwright who reminds you that the art of postmodern narrative goes back to 800 A.D. The play certainly has its moments and seductive qualities. Simply listening to the stories reminds that contemporary narratives are thrown at us like pies in the face, for maximum impact. Arabian Nights, by hook or crook, seduces us.

Credit is due to the energetic 11-member cast--all of whom engage in multiple roles--who fill the stage with henpecked husbands, cuckolds, nymphs, perfect lovers, sympathetic women, thieves, caliphs, and madmen. There are shining moments, especially when actors are permitted to dig deeply into their characters. "Sympathy the Learned" is a high point where Dyana Neal plays a wonder girl who manages to leave her male inquisitors disrobed and in love. "Contest of Generosity" takes the art of giving to its extreme. As the lovestruck Aziz, Simon offers an amusing counterpart to his other character, the depressed misanthrope Sharyar.

The production's flaws involve the bigger picture. Arabian Nights is, simply, an intricately choreographed piece that probably demands a little more rehearsal than the Hopkins Players were able to spare. The complex vocal overdubbing--where one character completes another's thoughts or sentences--is roughly executed. Uneasiness and sometimes halting performances or line skips also mar the performance. The two central characters of Scheherezade and Sharyar are less clearly drawn than they might be. In short, while the actors are willing and the directing is adventurous, continuity and flow are somewhat lacking.

Despite all of that, at the end of the evening you'll probably be drawn into the message of the story. And the question that remains is haunting enough to make this mandatory viewing for any would-be writers: Do people tell stories to achieve immortality, or just to delay death?

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