Mary Zimmerman created The Arabian Nights in 1992 in the shadow of the first Gulf War. Seeing a recurring theme in the cycle of hidden treasure whose unearthing brings great wealth but ultimate disaster, the director — as she has explained in interviews — aimed to convey a sense of the richness, dynamism, and eloquence of Middle Eastern culture while also subtly hinting at the destruction wreaked by armed conflict in recent decades.
Sixteen years and another Gulf War later, Zimmerman's visually and intellectually captivating theatrical retelling of yarns from the ancient Middle Eastern story cycle also popularly known as The Thousand and One Nights still reveals a deep connection between a civilization and its heritage, no matter how buried beneath the sands of war-torn time that cultural legacy might be.
Concealment is a running theme. It's there in the main plot concerning the ruthless King Shahryar, who vows to murder every virgin in the land after catching his wife in the arms of another man. But the wily Scheherezade manages to stanch the king's bloodlust by telling him a series of incredible stories that distract him from killing her. Eventually, she helps him rediscover his buried compassion: "You have lifted the veil from my heart," he declares.
Stories in the production are often hidden within others. Within Scheherezade's spinning of a sprawling comic yarn about a gullible court jester's marriage to a tricksy, philandering woman, three characters tell their own tall tales. A pastry cook recounts a moral fable about a poor man who goes to Cairo in search of wealth, only to discover his fortune buried in his garden at home; a butcher tells a thoughtful anecdote about a benign sheik whose clemency in matters of love inspires generosity in others; and a grocer's absurd narrative focuses on the mysterious contents of a little drawstring bag.
With the help of 15 versatile ensemble performers who match vivid characterizations with flamboyant musical, dancing, improvisational comedy, and — crucially — storytelling skills, Zimmerman creates a bustling, multilayered world. Actors morph seamlessly from one character to the next, at times clubbing together to create boats, camels, and other forms with physical dexterity. The identity of every performer changes so often during the course of one tale that it's easier to think of each actor as a nest of Russian dolls, revealing a new persona with the removal of each layer. By the end of the play, for example, Shahryar isn't just a man on a murderous mission. By making other characters echo his words and shadow his physical actions throughout the story cycle, Zimmerman deftly suggests that parts of the king's personality lie buried within countless other archetypes.
The mise-en-scène takes this idea further. At the start of the show, a single uncovered light bulb hangs starkly over a bulky pile of objects, covered by a white sheet. The cast comes onstage and removes this dull outer layer to reveal a head-spinning array of colorful Persian rugs, throw cushions, and low wooden tables. Meanwhile, the stark bulb gives way to a canopy of warmly lit lanterns. Costumes sometimes serve to hide characters' true identities: In one story, a burkha-clad dancer beguiles a self-important merchant into marriage. Even when she removes her veil, she manages to keep her identity and intentions secret.
Sound also serves to create hidden strata of meaning. A scene in which all the performers simultaneously act out dozens of stories from the Arabian Nights canon creates a vocal cacophony. As with the costumes, props, and other scenic elements, the densely layered use of sound highlights the idea that truth and beauty are more likely to be found hidden deep within a culture than at its surface.
The production aptly demonstrates how riveting narratives bring the hidden to light and resuscitate long-dormant truths in society. But Zimmerman's artistry falls short when topical rather than universal issues are addressed. For instance, the irony of a line like "Baghdad, city of peace and poets" doesn't feel quite as poignant as it must have seemed in the early 1990s. The destruction of cities like Baghdad (and, for that matter, Kabul) has been so complete in the intervening years that we've gone way beyond hinting at the possibility of devastation. What matters now is pulling these bomb-shelled cultures out of the rubble and restoring their stories to their former glory. Thankfully, it's the stories, rather than the politics, of The Arabian Nights, that make the experience worthwhile.