Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Arabian Nights: Baghdad, City of Peace and Poets

The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman
Director Dale AJ Rose
Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the Nate Katter Theatre
4 - 14 October 2007

Director Dale AJ Rose’s mounting of Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Arabian Nights doesn’t shy away from the erotic nature of these tales. The music of Jamal Mohammed, the flowing costumes by Katarina Urosevic and sensuous dances by Monica Willding support the earthy themes of the production.

Every sort of transgression is alluded to in the collection we call The Arabian Nights. These stories originated as Persian folktales and were added to in Arabic over a 500 year period. They expressed a secular revolt against the more conservative Islamic tradition that allowed only religious scientific and historical texts. The tales were banned in Egypt as recently as 1989

The story is told through a “frame tale” that has the other stories embedded within it. A frame tale is returned to time and again throughout a story to reorient the listener and set up the next episode.

The selection of narratives offered to us by Zimmerman seem drawn mostly from the later tales of the Arabian nights. These later stories were written in Cairo 11th through 14th centuries but they often attributed themselves to the earlier golden age of the caliphate of Haroun al-Rashid in Bagdad.

Mary Zimmerman weaves a text that is ready for collaboration. There are places in the text where improvisation by the actors is specifically called for. Sometimes several different stories are being acted out simultaneously. There are cues and suggestions for sets and props, music and dance; but one of the elements of her genius is the ability to elicit, and to leave room for, collaboration. Zimmerman’s adaptation of these tales is written with a director’s eye and she leaves room, not only for any other director who might undertake this project, but all the other contributing members of the production team.

This is myth not realism. If the play is to work the actors must be flexible in their transitions from one character to another.

Director Dale AJ Rose does a great job of weaving the various collaborators and the various elements of a complex production into a Persian tapestry of theatre arts.

The director’s hand is clear and palpable. The actors are supple in their transitions. In a strong cast Luke Daniel stands out as Caliph Shahryar. He is a handsome and imposing stage presence. Lauretta Pope is suggestive, seductive, intelligent and humorous as the myth weaver Scheherazade. Heddy Lahmann listens with such attentiveness that her listening creates a dialogue with the actor who is speaking. Wayne Pyle is a stabilizing presence in the shifting sands of Scheherazade’s stories; his voice is clear and true. Hillary Leigh Parker remains exquisite in her radiant stillness and sparing use of gesture.

The sinuous original compositions by Jamal Mohammed played by Nikolai Ruskin and Fugan Dineen transport us to a world of exotic fantasy. An ensemble production lives and dies on its transitions. If they don’t work then the play doesn’t work. The Middle Eastern music, performed live, is a spine that helps hold the various elements together.

While audience members often hum the tunes of a musical as they leave the theatre, it is not often that they attempt the choreography of a show during the intermission. The dances by Monica Willding are piercing. She has only brief moments to evoke a mood and help establish the next scene yet each short dance is epigrammatic. It finds its own center and helps to center us for the next episode of Scheherazade’s ongoing tale

The lights by Jen Rock contribute to the fluid character of the evening as does the multi-level stage by Isaac Ramsey. Ramsey’s Persian rugs that cover the stage and Rose’s ensemble production techniques are reminiscent of, but not derivative of, Peter Brook’s Conference of the Birds

The costumes by Urosevic are a sensuous splash of texture and color; she knows her way in the world of fabrics.

The CRT production of Arabian Nights sings; it dances; it performs.

Catch it if you can.

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