Originally written and directed by Mary Zimmerman for the Lookingglass Theatre Company, The Arabian Nights was then produced in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club. For Arden Theatre Company's current production, director Terrence J. Nolen has assembled a 13 member ensemble of actors who play a myriad of roles like a well-exercised acrobatic team.
"The Book of the Tale of the Thousand Nights" (the original text from which this adaptation came) starts with a young bride, Scheherazade who is married to a cruel king who intends to kill her the next day after the wedding night. In order to stay alive, she enchants King Shahryar with a fantastic and magical chronicle. But by daybreak,she has not finished her story and the mesmerized king lets her live another day to tell it. Each night Scheherazade starts another story and each dawn the tale must be continued. This goes on until the young bride succeeds in making the cynical king fall in love with her and her beguiling gift of storytelling. Mary Zimmerman's play contains stories within stories within stories and I enjoyed this retelling of these ancient Persian tales.
The F. Otto Haas stage at the Arden is a versatile space which has been arranged in a three-quarter arena type setting. The stage floor is painted with intricate mosaic designs to resemble a Persian carpet while small red and beige lanterns are lowered and raised above the playing area. The effect of James Kronzer's set is muted Byzantine, for the color spectrum is limited mostly to browns, tans, reds, creams, and greens. Upon this canvas our players re-enact their fables of love, betrayal, revenge and generosity.
Arthur T. Acuna returns to the Arden as King Shahryar and plays him with such conviction and ferocity that we really do believe he would slice his young bride from ear to ear with his silver scimitar. Shirley Roeca and Alvaro Mendoza are both very engaging in the several roles that they play. And Larry Grant Malvern and Sheree-Monique Roberts must be noted for their flair for getting the most out of a comic situation.
Unlike "The Arabian Nights" that People's Light and Theatre Company presented several seasons ago that was very family oriented, this version is more adult -- for the tales involve unfaithful wives, days of lovemaking, suicide and depression. And it is ironic to note that most of the tales center in and around the city of Baghdad. (A city which was bombed during the Persian Gulf War and then again during the current war in Iraq.) This fact does not go unnoticed in this production where we hear the whistling of bombs in the sky as the lights dim and the actors roll away on a darkened stage. The image is one that stays with you - for it is as if all those characters and all those stories are blown away with the dust of time just as all civilizations will be one day.
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