In her recent production Candide at Shakespeare Theatre, director Mary Zimmerman dealt with a naive optimist who slowly becomes disillusioned by a series of unhappy events. In The Arabian Nights, currently at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theatre, her subject is a cruel and murderous tyrant who gradually becomes enlightened by the 1,001 stories his cunning bride, Scheherezade, tells him in order to delay her death.
Zimmerman initially adapted The Arabian Nights in 1992, when it ran at Chicago’s Lookingglass theater company. The Gulf War had ended the previous year, making the play’s setting Baghdad a resonant one. In 2011 Washington, the ancient stories are as fascinating as ever, with Zimmerman subtly infusing her narrative with layers of meaning. In one scene, an exceedingly wise woman named Sympathy the Learned recites the fundamental tenets and history of Islam, describing how jihad is only to be used for defensive purposes, never offensive. In multiple stories, women enact their revenge on sadistic or unfaithful men by outwitting them. There’s little explicitly political rhetoric (save for an awkward final scene in which cast members lie still on the stage, reciting, “The lights over Baghdad were white. The lights over Baghdad were why”); instead Zimmerman chooses to educate us slowly—like Scheherezade’s husband—about storytelling’s power to encourage empathy.
Zimmerman has assembled an excellent cast, with all 14 members usually present onstage and often doubling as musicians and dancers. At first, the stage contains nothing but a few dust cloths, but as the actors enter to the sound of drumming, they unfurl carpets and turn the Fichandler into a souk, complete with 20 lanterns slowly lowered from the ceiling. The basic story is familiar to many: King Shahryar (David DeSantos) discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him, and he’s so enraged that he proceeds to marry a different virgin each day and then kill her at night. When Shahryar’s aide (Allen Gilmore) tells him there are no women left for him to marry, the king demands that the aide give him his own daughter, Scheherezade (Stacey Yen), who consoles her father by plotting to prolong the king’s attention with a different cliffhanger story each night.
The art of storytelling is by its nature convoluted, so in this play tales develop within tales, leading the audience down multiple paths before the rising sun brings the narratives back again. In the first half, the stories are surprisingly bawdy, almost like a Middle Eastern Canterbury Tales. One scene requires the actors to improvise the contents of a lost bag in order to prove that it’s theirs (in this case, the idiom “pulling something out of the bag” has never been so apt), prompting in one case wild tales of mixed-race leaders, premiers from China, “a big white house,” and an Australian disseminator of secrets. Zimmerman utilizes her cast’s comic abilities, from slapstick to schoolyard humor (apparently people have been making fart jokes for thousands of years). But in the second half, the tone turns more thoughtful and the stories more poignant, leading the king to reflect upon himself and his own actions.
The Fichandler’s theater-in-the-round format is the perfect environment for such a physical and layered piece, allowing the actors to dance, mime, sing, and perform acrobatics in a circus-like setting. Zimmerman embraces comedy but doesn’t shy away from the moral core beneath the stories Scheherezade tells—making the most of an entertainment form as old as language itself.
At Arena Stage through February 20. Buy tickets ($40 and up) by calling 202-488-3300 or visiting arenastage.com.