Story: After learning that both his brother’s wife and his own spouse have been unfaithful to their respective husbands, King Shahryar decides that all women are equally duplicitous. Therefore, he demands to wed a succession of virgins, killing each one on the morning after her wedding to ensure that she doesn’t dishonor him. After his wazir depletes the kingdom of such young women for the king, the wazir reluctantly agrees to have Scheherezade, one of his own two daughters, marry the ruthless ruler.
On her wedding night, Scheherezade tells the king a story but leaves it incomplete before morning arrives. He agrees to let her live another day in order to hear the end of the tale. That night, she finishes her original story but then begins another tale that becomes a ‘cliff-hanger’ at night’s end. Once again, King Shahryar agrees to let his bride live one more day so that he can learn how the story ends. In such a fashion, Scheherezade entertains the king for 1,001 days until he falls in love with her and agrees to keep her alive indefinitely.
Highlights: Mary Zimmerman, a long-time prominent fixture on the Chicago theatrical scene, has made a well-earned reputation by bringing her own distinct stamp to interpretations of classic works of literature such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Homer’s The Odyssey. Her 1994 adaptation of the compilation of traditional Arabic, Persian and Indian tales collectively known as The 1,001 Nights is receiving its St. Louis premiere in a new production by St. Louis Shakespeare, which previously has presented its own versions of Zimmerman’s The Odyssey as well as a superior interpretation of her Metamorphoses.
Other Info: Unfortunately, this presentation of The Arabian Nights lacks the sophistication and effervescence of the company’s previous rendition of Metamorphoses. For whatever reason, the two-act production never gets off the ground, remaining stolid, turgid, flat and un-engaging throughout.
Despite a pleasant turn here and there by various members of the cast, the two-hour-plus performance seems every bit as long as Sheherezade’s lingering ruse to save her own life from her bloodthirsty husband. There is a nicely conceived set by Cristie Johnston that utilizes familiar Arabian landscape elements such as mosques and star-studded skies. Michele Friedman Siler’s bare-midriff costumes for the ladies are as familiar as old Hollywood depictions of the world of Aladdin and Sinbad, and Nick Moramarco’s lighting is especially effective depicting nocturnal scenes. Lisa Beke adds recognizable properties such as scimitars to the proceedings and there’s original music performed by composer Edwin Buchanan and musician E.B. Naeger that’s derivative of traditional Arabian sounds but unfortunately tends to drone on and sound all the same after a while.
Ironically, while the play presents a number of vignettes to capture the flavor of Scheherezade’s ingenious method for saving her skin, those short stories merely limp from adventure to adventure with little sense of flair or excitement. They are monotonous rather than captivating, a problem that seems inherent in the script as much as the company’s interpretation.
Perhaps the finest element is an impressive bit by Sigrid Sutter as a character named Sympathy the Learned, whose substantial intellect and expansive knowledge of sundry categories proves to be more than a match for any man in the male-dominated kingdom.
Director Jef Awada, a noted movement instructor at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, has impeccable credentials on his resume, but his guidance of this production lacks energy, panache or any appreciable vitality. Why this is so is a mystery, since many in the cast are accomplished performers who have done marvelous work on local stages many times in the past.
That hard-working ensemble includes Joshua Thomas as Shahryar, Maggie Conroy as Scheherezade, Aaron Dodd as the wazir, Njemile Ambonisye, Adam Flores, Gabrielle Greer, Nandini King, Denmark Laine, Luke Lindberg, Carl Overly, Robbie Suozzi, Jaime Zayaz and Tasha Zebrowski.
If nothing else, Zimmerman’s earnest effort may send inquisitive audiences to the library shelves to pick up a copy of The 1,001 Nights and learn a bit about Middle Eastern culture. That would be its finest achievement.
Play: The Arabian Nights
Group: St. Louis Shakespeare
Venue: Black Cat Theatre, 2810 Sutton in Maplewood
Dates: March 15, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 1-800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 2.5 on a scale of 1-to-5
Photos courtesy of Kim Carlson