The hook is perhaps the greatest, besides the most famous, narrative device of all time: a ruler, cheated on by his consort, marries again and again—but only for a night, executing each new bride at dawn. When he demands the hand of his prime minister’s daughter, the young woman proves resourceful, telling him enchanting stories that spawn new tales, each posing a cliffhanger as morning arrives. Many nights go by, and she is spared each dawn, until she presents her overwhelmed husband with the children he has fathered.
Jorge Luis Borges, an ardent admirer, remarked that each of the various titles this medieval collection is known by has an equally beautiful ring: “A Thousand Nights and a Night,” in its original Arabic; “A Thousand and One Nights” in most European languages—and in English, The Arabian Nights, which Mary Zimmerman calls her newest venture, now onstage at Berkeley Rep.
The Rep’s production, which Zimmerman wrote during rehearsal and directed, retells Scherezade and Shahryar’s story and the tale-telling that sprang from it. The cast of 15, many who have worked with Zimmerman before, play multiple parts, all at one point or another becoming storytellers. There’s the music of dumbek and oud, touches of dance, and much movement theater across Daniel Ostling’s set, strewn with carpets and pillows, with lamps lowered from the flies, on The Rep’s angular Thrust Stage. As the modular vignettes string out into full-blown stories, interrupted by interlocking tales-within-tales, the air of improvisation hangs like perfume in the air.
In some ways, that’s the strongest flavor, despite the true virtuosity of the original tales and the efforts of the young cast—in particular, Sofia Jean Perez as Scherezade and Jesse J. Perez and Melina Kalomas in various roles—to bring them to life. But with all the well-meaning intent (Zimmerman said she was inspired by The Nights’ opposite, media spins on the Mideast since the Gulf War), competence of execution, and attempts to bring across cultural nuances, like the rich hyperbole of the high caliphal medieval prose, the synaesthesia of setting, music, movement, voice, even scent—what once was admiringly referred to as “Oriental”—the production can’t shake something of the banality of sketch comedy routines or the resonance of cable TV.
Modern theater has been, in some ways, the search for marriage between the episode, the tableau (or “pregnant moment”) and that oxymoron, the spontaneous act of rigorous movement. Soviet director V.S. Meyerhold called a way he staged scenes with acrobatic movement to bring out or counterpoint meaning “attractions,” from circus parlance.
Many of these techniques found their way into improv exercises, from which sprang contemporary sketch comedy, and emulations of the old avant-garde in performance art—which, often media-driven, can resemble improv comedy routines, which the media has embraced,
Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights has too much sense of riffing, of being “bitty.” The profound, sometimes contradictory sensibilities of the original tales and how they intertwine can be better found in some of the—curiously incomplete—adaptations and inspired emulations of The Arabian Nights: Jan Potocki’s Manuscript Found in Saragossa (inspired as he read The Nights to his sick wife), but not the extraordinary and hilariously acted film by Wojcek Has, Saragossa Manuscript, tale told within delirious tale in flashback. Neither is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (last of a trilogy of tale-telling, after The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales)—or the work of two living filmmakers who are also close to theater and improvisation, innovators of new ways to weave diverse strands into open-ended, ongoing stories, beyond the heady brew, even, of “magical realism”: Jacques Rivette, Raul Ruiz.