First devised during the Gulf War 16 years ago, Mary Zimmerman’s revived “The Arabian Nights” arrives at another moment when some positive appreciation of Islam and the Arabic world is particularly welcome. Not to mention nearly three hours of exhilarating, imaginative theatrical escape — always desirable, but especially soothing at present. Applying the writer-director’s signature polyglot style to a few of the “thousand and one” tales, this ingenious entertainment travels to co-producers Kansas City Rep and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater Company’s stages after Berkeley Rep; other nonprofits would be wise to keep it on the road indefinitely.
Since discovering his queen’s infidelity — which she pays for with her life — King Shahryar (Ryan Artzberger) has soured on all womankind, taking a virgin bride every night, then killing her at dawn to ensure he’ll never be betrayed again. The realm’s marriageable daughters having by now all either died or fled, there’s no one left but clever Scheherazade (Sofia Jean Gomez), who puts off her execution by telling cliffhanger stories whose conclusion always requires one more day’s reprieve.
Enacted by Zimmerman’s multi-cast, multicultural ensemble — who are required to sing, dance, play instruments and otherwise run on all cylinders throughout — these tales are ribald and raucously comic in the long (but light-as-a-feather) first half. Her command of wide-ranging tone is such that the act climaxes, hilariously, on the sort of thing a Berkeley Rep audience might normally cross the street to avoid: An epically prolonged fart gag.
After intermission, the stories grow more somber, as Scheherazade seeks to thaw her master’s frozen heart. Several tales tacitly chide men for their attitudes toward and treatment of women; the story of Sympathy the Learned contains the evening’s most pointed, admiring references to core Muslim beliefs, with allusions to today’s extremist “holy war” contortion of those principles.
These “Nights” are a true spectacle, despite the thrust stage being bare of decoration save myriad Persian rugs and a dozen or more hanging lanterns. Zimmerman’s highly physical brand of theater is ideally applied here, with everything from sinuous floor-rolling erotica to pantomime camels to full-on production numbers blending into a seamless whole.
There’s even room for improvisation, as the “Tale of the Wonderful Bag” has that ownership-contested object’s mystery contents described spontaneously by two randomly-chosen cast plaintiffs — to marvelously absurd results at the performance reviewed.
TJ Gerckens’ lighting and Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes make notable contributions. But one thing that makes Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights” so special is that it conveys a sumptuousness of aesthetic and imagination, yet might enchant nearly as much if performed by these actors in ordinary street dress on a patch of lawn.
Like Scheherazade herself, the show conjures storytelling magic out of thin air; the true production values here aren’t material, but human.