The Arabian Nights
By Mary Zimmerman
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
Produced by Constellation Theatre Company
Reviewed by Janice Cane
Constellation Theatre Company’s production of The Arabian Nights, now playing at Source Theatre, is a good show. It’s not a great show, and it’s not a bad show. It’s just … good. The set, lushly carpeted with dozens of Persian rugs, sets the mood perfectly. Percussionist Tom Teasley plays his exotic musical instruments at all the right moments to heighten the level of drama on stage. Most of the actors play their parts with a great deal of enthusiasm. But somehow, when all of these elements come together, they lack that special something that makes a good show spectacular.
Or maybe I was just too busy being embarrassed. You see, there are several very explicit scenes in The Arabian Nights that would have made me blush on any other day, but on this day, I turned a deep shade of red. I had brought my parents and sister, in town for a visit, to this show. Luckily my sister is older than me. In fact, very luckily indeed. I think she and I were the youngest people in the audience. The elderly ladies a few rows over seemed to really enjoy those explicit scenes, but I was a little taken aback. So word to the wise: don’t bring your family to The Arabian Nights.
Or maybe the show seemed lackluster to me because it was way too long. Playwright Zimmerman based The Arabian Nights (does anyone else have that Aladdin song running through their heads?) on the ancient Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, but this play would be much improved if it didn’t start to feel a thousand nights long by the end. Another problem is the end itself. Zimmerman’s “coda” ties ancient Baghdad to the modern-day Middle East, and it just doesn’t work.
The extreme length of the show (two hours and change) would be more understandable if director Allison Arkell Stockman spent more time on the intensely dramatic moments this story offers. After three years of killing his brides on their wedding night, King Shahryar marries Scheherezade, who tells him tale after tale, night after night, to prolong her own murder. On the first night, Scheherezade spins her story until dawn, when she leaves the king with a bit of a cliffhanger. This should be a critical moment, full of suspense for Scheherezade’s fate-will the king kill her or let her live to finish her tale? But Stockman speeds right past it, as she does many of the climactic moments in the individual tales.
The effect of glossing over these crucial scenes is to eliminate the plot of The Arabian Nights. Scheherezade supposedly melts her husband’s hardened heart (his first bride slept around, making her his first victim) with her stories, but the audience hardly gets to see that. It doesn’t help that King Shahryar is portrayed by the weakest link in this ensemble cast. John Tweel just seems to read his lines, without much pizzazz.
Fortunately, his counterparts portray their many roles with much more zeal. John Geoffrion, Lisa Lias and Katy Carkuff are especially entertaining. Undulating hips abound in The Arabian Nights, but Carkuff’s undulate more than others as the wife of a court jester who hides not one, not two, but four lovers in her privy. She makes the pastrycook’s dough rise, plows the seed of the greengrocer, and strokes the musician’s clarinet. But my favorite was the butcher, who cries out to Carkuff, “Bleet for me!” Not a phrase I ever thought I’d hear.
Most of the ensemble had to memorize an extraordinary number of lines for their multiple parts, and they do an excellent job-especially Lias, who plays Sympathy the Learned with a twinkle in her eye. She and all the others are gracefully conducted by Katie Atkinson’s Scheherezade. Like a puppetmaster, she moves in tandem with her characters and even joins the stories.
She and her cast mates are clad in costume designer Yvette M. Ryan’s sheer veils, wrapped skirts and baggy pants, all in bright colors. Dressed this way, they fit perfectly into A.J. Guban’s simple yet lavish set of Persian rugs. And Teasley deserves another mention; he not only performs the enchanting music, but composed it as well. If only the sum of this production was as captivating as its parts.
(Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with intermission) Playing through October 21 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. Performances are Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12-$18, with discounts available. Call 1-800-494-TKTS or buy online.