Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, now being given sweet and vigorous voice at Arena Stage, could be with perhaps more justice called How the Mad King Shahryar Recovered his Humanity, so astutely does it measure the healing power of storytelling. We all know the tale of the brilliant Scheherezade (Stacy Yen), who forestalled her execution at the hands of Shahryar (David DeSantos) by telling him a story each night. He could not kill her until he knew how the story ended, but each night she would begin a new one. In Zimmerman’s retelling, though, it is the effect of these stories on Shahryar which is the focus, and thus the story is about him. It is a nervy move, and it pays tremendous dividends.
The Arabian Nights begins with Shahryar discovering his wife in flagrante delicto with a slave, and responding in an explosive, murderous rage directed not only at his wife, whom he kills, but at all women. He weds, beds and slaughters a different woman every night, until his whole Kingdom cowers from his approach. Imagine the Tucson killer Jared Loughner, who Sen. John McCain characterized as “someone who had lost some essential part of his humanity” made Head of State, and you have King Shahryar to a tee. Shahryar does not mutter about grammar and mind control, but his twin delusions of collective guilt and the morality of murder are just as diseased, and even more dangerous. With virtually every woman in the Kingdom in hiding, Shahryar demands that his loyal vizier (Allan Gilmore) bring his own daughters, Scheherezade and Dunyazade (Maureen Sebastian), to the King’s bloody bed. When the stricken father demurs, the power-drunk King shows how far he has wandered from his own humanity by suggesting that the vizier should be proud. “Your daughter will be Queen – for a day,” Shahryar sneers.
You might think that these depredations belong to a distant time in the distant past, but disabuse yourself: it is Zimmerman’s express purpose to show that “it is a precondition of literature that we view other people fundamentally the same (as ourselves).” We have no immunity from inhumanity or brutality; zealots still blind women for trying to learn to read, and in our own history, the settlement of the West was accomplished in part by giving smallpox-soaked blankets to the native population.
The signature virtue which Zimmerman brings to the table, in this and all of her work, is the ability to bend every element of the storyteller’s art to its ultimate purpose. For example, in this production she does something incredibly bold: she casts the opening moments in dim light and shadows (T.J. Gerckens is the lighting designer) and has the actors shout their lines, sometimes indistinctly. You may think (as I did) that you are witnessing deficiencies in the production, but you are not. All becomes clear when Scheherezade tells her first story – about a priggish merchant (Usman Ally) who brutally rejects the love of a beautiful woman (Nicole Shalhoub), only to get a unique comeuppance years later – and the stage becomes as sunny as Baghdad at noon. The actors are as lucid and transparent as a clear stream running through the desert, as they must be, for in a good story the characters are always more understandable, and their fates more just, than they are in real life. It is why we tell stories: to teach each other how our lives could be led, if we were guided by justice.
The Arabian Nights is full of stories – many of them stories within stories – but the story line is the effect of these tales on Shahryar. Each time a story ends the focus returns to him and Scheherezade, and each time it does, the scene seems brighter and the characters calmer and more coherent. Scheherezade is not overtly on any teaching mission: the first duty of storytelling is that it entertain, and these stories do the trick. But what is entertaining about Scheherezade’s stories is their invocation of humanity – sad, vain, funny, tragic, fallible and prone to temptation, angelic and animalistic – and they chip away at Shahryar’s fierce, rigid, judgmental façade like an Ocean eating away at an ancient and abandoned wall. Thus Scheherezade tells Shahryar the cuckold, the story of a Jester (Gilmore) who is betrayed by his wife with not one but four lovers, more or less simultaneously. Instead of slaying them, he takes them to the great ruler Harun al-Rashid (Barzin Akhavan) who, after hearing a story from each of them, pardons them all. Shahryar does not respond directly, but when he next speaks he is notably calmer.
al-Rashid, whose reign is marked with wisdom and compassion, is a recurring character, and he stands in marked, if unobserved, contrast to the depredations of the Mad King. In the first Act, he is an avid participant in the comic going-ons which Scheherezade conjures up, but in the second, Akhavan allows the character’s inherent gravity to assert itself, and thus helps us see the sweet and tragic sides of the human experience.
He is superb in his encounter with Sympathy the Learned (the terrific Susaan Jamshidi), a woman wiser than all of his counselors whose overweening ambition is to give her imbecilic brother a purpose in life. And in one of the final stories, al-Rashid hears the confession of a man (Desantos) who was unfaithful at a terrible cost to himself; the great ruler welcomes the miscreant into his household, and is his friend for his remaining days.
These powerful stories have a great impact on the Mad King, as their telling in Zimmerman’s wonderful staging must have an impact on us. The actors who populate these stories are also athletes, singers and acrobats, and they fly around the stage with uninhibited grace, thus giving us a visual feast to consume as we drink in the storytelling. The soaring movement of the actors, supplemented by the effortless way Zimmerman conjures up whole landscapes with the barest suggestion of a prop, recreates the magic which Zimmerman has relentlessly removed from the story collection (there is no Aladdin, no Sinbad).
Many people have observed that the primary lesson of The Arabian Nights is that we tell stories to save our lives. I agree, but the life being saved was not Scheherezade’s; she will, in time, die anyway. It was Shahryar who was saved, from his own alienation from humanity, and from dying, when his time came, without ever having truly lived. So too it is with us. Storytelling cannot put off the endless no, but it can help us find, and live in, the endless now.
Arena Stage’s production of The Arabian Nights is scheduled to run thru Feb 20, 2011 in the Fichandler Theatre of the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St SW, Washington, DC.
The Arabian Nights
By Mary Zimmerman
Derived from Persian folk takes dating from the tenth century, translated into French by J.C Mardrus and from French to English by Edward Powys Mathers
Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2:35 with 1 intermission
- Fiona Zublin . Express Night Out
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Missy Frederick . DCist
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Maria Helena Carey . TheHillIsHome
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- Bob Mondello . Washington City Paper
Jenn Larson . WeLoveDC