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Originally posted: May 31, 2009
'Arabian Nights' at Lookingglass a cascade of life-affirming stories
HEATER REVIEW: "ARABIAN NIGHTS" ★★★★ Through July 12 at the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.; Running Time: 2 hours, 15 mins.; Tickets: $30-$60 at 312-337-0665.
At the start of “The Arabian Nights,” Mary Zimmerman’s thrilling Chinese box of nested Middle Eastern stories, we encounter the embittered, brutal, merciless King Shahryar. He has a knife at a young woman’s throat.
To quieten the king’s restless soul and save her life, this young woman frantically starts spewing forth stories—1,001 nights of sad, funny, moral, smart, silly, satirical, repeatable and ultimately redemptive yarns of Baghdad, its quirky denizens and colorful environs. These interlocking yarns dance in their visually gorgeous frames—intruding, delighting, imposing and, by the end of a couple of hugely engrossing hours, universalizing.
And all the time, that knife is that young woman’s throat, threatening to topple the fountainhead of this landscape of the imagination.
The memory of this extraordinary piece of Chicago theater has stayed with me since its seminal first production in a then-scruffy section of Belmont Avenue in 1992—long before Zimmerman got gigs at the Metropolitan Opera, David Schwimmer snagged a sitcom named “Friends” and Lookingglass got its spiffy, city-sponsored digs on the Magnificent Mile. It was the time of the first Gulf War, when Iraq’s cultural identity, thanks to both its merciless dictator and the needs of his Western antagonists, had been rendered in the media and the halls of goverment as a hostile, homogenous antithasis of light, art and freedom. By reminding everyone of our shared cultural roots—and by demonstrating the Arabian heritage of humor and wisdom—Zimmerman and her young, just-graduated cohorts seemed—almost alone—to be pulling back a black veil and letting in the humanity.
Well, you can’t go back. “Arabian Nights” is not what it was on that heart-stopping night in 1992. It is better.
The multi-ethnic actors—some from that same cast, some new—are more mature and thus probe deeper. The text, honed and published in the intervening years, is richer. The new production, which has already been acclaimed at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and deserves to end up on Broadway—is sharper, faster, more polished, more exciting. It’s also more present and spontaneous—the great Andy White tells his stories with delicious improvisational applomb—as if everyone intuitively understands that great storytellers constantly adjust their narratives, based on how they land with an audience.
I think the brilliance of this piece, which is Zimmerman’s most theatrically complete and perfect creation, can be seen in that first moment, when Louise Lamson’s bright-eyed Scheherezade starts spinning her life-preserving stories for Shahryar, now played by Ryan Artzburger, an actor who somehow simultaneously capures a brutal core, a sad heart and a vulnerable soul. Scheherezade’s scared little sister, movingly played by Heidi Stillman, looks on, willing the stories to overcome violence.
You can see that opening many ways. A young person (this show is fine for teens) might see it as just the first of many stories—an ancient tale in the same style as those that follow. But you could also see the violent opening as a metaphorical embodiment of the Achiles’ heel of Islamic culture—a sexist bruality that can easily morph into oppresive totalitarianism. Or, if you take a different political position, you could see Shahryar as the invading Americans and Scheherezade as, say, Iraqi culture fighting against its own destruction. They all work.
And here’s the best part. Whichever way you are looking at the opening, the conclusion is life-affirming and satisfying in every respect. That’s because Zimmerman’s adaptations of these anicent yarns are relentlessly focused on our shared humanity.
Most in the mix of tourists and locals who find their way to the Water Tower will, I suspect, just sit and enjoy the cascade of stories, which range from celebrations of great female learning to the yarns of butchers, pasty crooks and Kurds to prolonged fart jokes. It’s like a Las Vegas buffet. If you don’t like one bite, another one starts shortly.
This is a wholly accessible, earthy, whimsical, sensual show with none of the narative pretensions or precious stagings that often afflicts work of this type. Full-blooded actors like the macho Usman Ally and the emotionally resonant Allen Gilmore convey some deep truths, but not at the expense of fun.
But this is high-stakes fun. It always feels like both life and freedom are at stake. Nothing involving Arabian nights has ever been simple.