Mary Zimmerman’s much-acclaimed and oft-performed “The Arabian Nights” is her own two-hour stage condensation of Powys Mathers’ four-volume English translation of J. C. Mardrus’ French paraphrase of the original Arabic of “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,” i.e., a condensation of a translation of a paraphrase of a text, or four generations away from these stories in their original form. Not that a sense of intention cannot be unearthed under these vast layers, and many of these stories are themselves centuries older in one form or another than this medieval collection, but this needs to be said upfront since so many of Zimmerman’s interpretive decisions about these narratives have their roots in how far removed her version is from the original stories.
One example to hopefully make the point: references to God (in Arabic, al-Lah, or literally, “the God”) are rendered “Allah,” and pronounced by the cast in a bewildering variety of ways throughout the play, usually emphasizing the “the” rather than the “God” portion of the phrase. Given that Zimmerman’s own intention as stated in a program insert is to draw a sharp contrast between war and literature (“It is a preoccupation of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves; it is a precondition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same.”), it seems an odd decision not to simply render the word in question simply as “God,” since the God of the Qur’an is also the same God of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.
Another caveat is that the best-known stories from later editions of the collection that Westerners all know and love are nowhere to be found here, so don’t expect to sail with Sinbad, see caves open to calls of “Open Sesame” or watch a jinn come out of a magic oil lamp, i.e., the kind of stories laden with special effects that Lookingglass has made its trademark. What you get instead is the collection’s framing device of a king (Ryan Artzberger) and his princess (Louise Lamson), here shown on a set of factory-made rugs and a set of descending lamps, with cast members coming and going to act out the diversionary tales that the princess tells to save her life from her embittered new husband, who fears women to the point that he has taken a vow to execute each new wife the morning after their wedding night.
More moving than the stories themselves—which by and large have been reworked to emphasize slapstick and vaudeville-like comedy—are the family members of the princess: a sister that stays to hear so as to spend the princess’ last moments with her, and a dutiful father who comes to the palace each morning with his daughter’s burial shroud, only to find that she has been given a reprieve for another night to finish a story.
There is much here that is fresh and to be admired, to be sure, especially the sense that captivating stories are as important—as the original collection indicates—as our daily bread, and that they teach us how to live and ultimately act as a redemption for an embittered and depressed king who nowadays would probably just be given Prozac and would just doze off for the night. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Arabian Nights” plays through August 30 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, (312)337-0665.