With a nod to Burton, from Seattle:
Monday, October 20, 2008
Last updated 12:02 a.m. PT
When adventurer and explorer Sir Richard Burton first translated "The Book of 1,001 Nights" from Arabic to English in 1885, it cemented his reputation as a degenerate.
For his fellow Victorians, it wasn't just the frequent lustiness of the stories that Scheherazade tells to divert the ruler Shahryar, it was Burton's recognition that the colonial subjects had rich and worthy literary traditions of their own.
A similar claim underlies Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of the classic work, known here by its familiar title "The Arabian Nights." Created after the first Gulf War, it gains new resonance in the so-called war on terror, and pervasive misunderstandings of Islam.
The work can be seen at Balagan Theatre, where the fringe company presents a hearty and credible staging.
The framing device, as in the book, is the storytelling talents of Scheherazade (Allison Strickland), the given bride of the caliph Shahryar (Ashley Bagwell). Having been betrayed by the infidelity of his first wife, the caliph weds, then executes, a new virgin each day. Scheherazade cleverly delays her murder by telling him a cliffhanging tale every night.
Collectively, the stories explore the blooms and deceptions between men and women amid the social norms of Muslim society. A pious merchant (Jason Harber) receives comic vengeance from a scorned love (Toni Rose). A crafty jester (Wilder Nutting-Heath) tricks by flattery the lovers of his sexually insatiable wife (Susan Graf) to their death sentence. A phony caliph (Bagwell again) confesses the tragic consequences of his own foolish promiscuity.
Like Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," moral fables sit alongside bawdy jokes, as in the story of the king (Curtis Eastwood) humiliated by his colossal fart.
Yet the ultimate call for respect due women is the challenge of a serene lady (nobly played by Terri Weagant) to pit her knowledge against the most learned men of the court. The exchange in interrogation illuminates the beauty of Muslim wisdom.
The dozen game actors are unfairly cramped on Balagan's postage-stamp stage, which is unsuited to the grand ballets the MacArthur fellowship-winning Zimmerman typically demands (her version of Ovid's "Metamorphosis," for example, requires a large water pool). Even so, director Jake Groshong manages to give us a bit of spectacle, aided by the intrepid lighting of KT Goeke. As the cast concludes with a babel of tales, fables and myths, it proves that there's plenty of enchantment in a good story.
THE ARABIAN NIGHTS
PLAYWRIGHT: Mary Zimmerman, from "The Arabian Nights: The Book of 1,001 Nights"
WHEN/WHERE: Through Nov. 8 at Balagan Theatre, 1117 E. Pike St.
TICKETS: $12-$15; 800-838-3006 or