"In our heads we contain all the images of the universe," says
Scheherezade, that desperate spinner of tales at the center of "The
Arabian Nights," director Mary Zimmerman's ever-magical adaptation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night.
Of course, unlike Scheherezade, Zimmerman is not compelled to spin a
captivating story each evening for nearly three years just to keep
herself from being beheaded by a cuckolded king with a murderous rage
against women. But she does have a sublime gift for making
stories come alive on stage. And this signature work of hers for
Lookingglass Theatre -- which debuted in 1992 in the wake of the first
Gulf War, and has been revised and revived throughout the country
during all the subsequent years of turbulence in the Middle East -- has
had an uncanny way of dancing into audiences' imaginations.
The exuberant and sensual (if a bit overlong) revival of the show
that opened Saturday at Lookingglass plays more beautifully,
passionately and humorously than ever -- from the thrilling prologue,
with its explosion of drumming, swiftly unfurled Persian carpets,
glittering lamps and harem dancers, to its finale of exhausted
storytellers rolling in tandem as they fitfully sleep and dream. And it
possesses all the mystery, exoticism, energy and spiciness of a Silk
Road bazaar of times past, even as its poetic meditation on things
spiritual, on the psyche of despots, and on male-female tensions
suggests enduring questions.
Zimmerman has long used the techniques of Chicago-bred story theater
but raised that style's artfulness and complexity to a stratospheric
level. And here, with a superbly animated ensemble of 15, Zimmerman
(fresh from adventures directing at New York's Metropolitan Opera
House) and her design genies -- Dan Ostling (sets), Mara Blumenfeld
(costumes), T.J. Gerckens (lighting), and Andre Pluess (sound and
music) -- have overseen an inspired rebirth of the show.
The serenely elegant Louise Lamson is an ideal Scheherezade, with
Ryan Artzburger as her captivated captor. Usman Ally, Allen Gilmore,
Andrew White, David Catlin and sensational drummer Ronnie Malley are
superb, multifaceted clowns. Nicole Shalhoub is a shrewdly sexy
sorceress. Susaan Jamshidi is the mesmerizing sage Sympathy the
Learned. Emjoy Gavino, a rising star, sings and moves with unearthly
beauty. And Barzin Akhaven, Minita Gandhi, Ramiz Monsef, Heidi Stillman
and Louis Tucci help keep the stage in a continually seductive swirl.