Peter Marks reviews Arena Stage's often beguiling production of 'The Arabian Nights'

Set in ancient Baghdad, "The Arabian Nights" runs through Feb. 20 at Arena Stage.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 7:55 PM

Mary Zimmerman's often beguiling "The Arabian Nights" is an evening of unfoldings: first of elegant Persian carpets, then of lyrical Eastern tales. Over the course of 2 1/2 hours, the Chicago director converts Arena Stage's in-the-round space, the Fichandler, into a storytelling casbah, in which the wares are all proffered to meet the universal demand for fables.

"What makes the world?" an interrogator inquires of a scholarly young woman in a riddle-filled tale called "Sympathy the Learned." "Words," replies the scholar, and indeed, "The Arabian Nights" is a conveyance for the consoling power of words - words that can delight a population, sway a king or, in the case of Scheherezade (Stacey Yen), save a life.

Scheherezade is the story-spinner of legend who stays her own execution by seducing a vindictive ruler (David DeSantos) with a literary device. Agonized by his queen's infidelity, King Shahryar strangles her and then, each night thereafter, marries, beds and murders a dewy virgin of his realm. When Scheherezade's turn comes for this terminal honeymoon, she uncovers Shahryar's last shred of humanity: He's a sucker for a cliffhanger. And so she craftily staves off death by walking him through an ever-expanding garden of verses.

He's meant to lose himself in Scheherezade's web of fantasy, and so are we, as the company of 14 robed, turbaned and bejeweled actors takes on the identities of her characters, revealed to the king over those fabled 1,001 nights. Time after time, a character in one of the stories breaks in with the narration of one of his or her own tales, and as a result we plunge ever deeper into the dizzying, nesting-doll world of words Scheherezade has made.

Zimmerman first staged "The Arabian Nights" for her home company, the Lookingglass Theatre of Chicago, in 1992; it set a template for much of her work with epic texts, mythological subjects and classical travelogues that would follow. In episodic structure and playful use of anachronism, the piece prefigures what has become her most famous show, "Metamorphoses," an adaptation of the stories of the Roman poet Ovid that was performed in a shallow pool and, on Broadway, won her a Tony for best director in 2002.

Informed by Ovid's poignant myths of human transformation, Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" was an achievement of far more luminous emotionality than her "Arabian Nights." The play at Arena can at times come across a little jokey, in the manner the members of a college classics faculty might, after a long department dinner, suddenly find both obscure literary references and silly puns to be too, too hilarious. ("Oh, my pastry cook!" a straying bride declares in one tale. "My tart!" he replies.)

The production includes some overly broad comic bits, and a lot of mugging. On the other hand, a story involving the slo-mo paroxysms of a household reacting to the world's worst case of flatulence actually is pretty darn funny.

By and large, though, this "Arabian Nights" acquits itself as a spirited and resourceful catalogue of ancient tales, evocatively enhanced by the least intrusive of design elements. Daniel Ostling's incidental scenic adornments - a bazaar's worth of rugs and a thin forest of hanging lanterns - offer the suggestion of an entertainment in an enchanted oasis. Andre Pluess's music for drums and strings provides sensuous underscoring. And Mara Blumenfeld's colorful, billowy costumes put us instantly in mind of storybook desert kingdoms.

The tales of temptation and infidelity, foolishness and revenge unspool in a way that allows us to experience Scheherezade bewitching DeSantos's Shahryar; the audience catches glimpses of Yen's Scheherezade mimicking the gestures of her characters, in tandem with the actors portraying them. She educates Shahryar as she casts her spell, culminating in her story of a caliph who, rather than severely punishing a transgressing subject, treats him with mercy. The lesson may be one that takes Shahryar something like 1,001 nights to learn, but at least at last he gets it.

As Scheherezade, Yen projects the charm, poise and intelligence of a precocious artist who has to think fast to keep her neck off the block; DeSantos gives a fine, tightly wound account of the tormented king. Among the other players, Usman Ally magnetically assays a merchant who seals an unfortunate marriage deal and Nicole Shalhoub makes an alluring impression as the object of an unfaithful fiance's affections.

The entire, protean cast exchanges personas with fluidity. In the course of one story, called "The Wonderful Bag," actors who've been randomly picked at each performance improvise speeches about what they believe to be in the bag. On the night I attended, one of the actors came up with some crazy contents having to do with cable commentator Keith Olbermann. At intermission a few minutes later came the text alerts that Olbermann was leaving his job at MSNBC. It caused you to wonder what kind of magic might really be residing in Zimmerman's carpets.

Arabian Nights Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. Lighting, T.J. Gerckens; sound and original music, Andre Pluess. With Maureen Sebastian, Terence Archie, Minita Gandhi, Susaan Jamshidi, Ronnie Malley, Luis Moreno, Barzin Akhavan, Louis Tucci, Allen Gillmore, Evan Zes. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Feb. 20 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Visit or call 202-488-3300.

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