By Nate Lee
“Dazzling and sumptuous production,” says Lawrence Bommer, Windy City Times. “Electrifying physicality – a blend of rock ‘n’ roll pyrotechnics, circus gymnastics and balletic grace,” says Anne Spiselman, Stagebill. “A hypnotic blend of dance, sound and visual beauty…a flood of enchantment…This is a show in which the stars glitter brightest because they are part of a dazzling constellation,” says Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times. And, of course, “Theatre at its absolute highest quality…unmissable…astonishing vibrancy…nothing is ever allowed to intrude upon the simple business of storytelling, ” Chris Jones, NewCity.
The critics agree, as they say. If I were to add my own voice to the shouts of praises for Lookingglass Theatre and their current hit play, “Arabian Nights,” I believe I’d use ancient words like “kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria.”
It’s an old story, so to speak. It was even old 1,100 years ago when it was put in the form of “1001 Nights.” But, in the hands of Lookingglass, these Nights are as bright as life, and twice as lively.
As their name implies, this six-year-old ensemble of Northwestern alumni has an affinity for taking epic works, from “Alice in Wonderland” to “The Odyssey” to “The Jungle,” and simultaneously exposing the work’s classic simplicity while boldly and imaginatively exploring their artistic depths.
This epic simplicity continues, even stronger, in “Arabian Nights,” a story, “simply,” about telling stories. In this ancient treasure, Scheherezade tells tales to the king to keep him from killing her. The characters in her tales tell stories (often to save their lives), and so on.
With these stories within stories, reflections upon reflections upon reflections, we are indeed inside a looking glass.
“When we started with this a million years ago, one of my goals was I wanted this to be my most accessible thing, and really, really entertaining,” says director Mary Zimmerman, who also adapted the play. “A range of people could read it on different levels. Profound for those who want to think long and hard about it, but also really simple.”
As with the tale of Sympathy, a young woman who, in besting all the Caliph’s wise men in a wisdom contest, modestly, quietly offers the secret of life: “to cultivate enthusiasm.” It is an epiphany.
An epiphany, yes, in a comedy of back flips, harem girls, jesters, farts, pastry cooks and greengrocers hiding in the privy, and an examination of the therapeutic qualities of copulation.
The cast has their own subtitle for this unusual mix: “The Syrian Romper Room.” And romp they do. “It’s the first funny show we’ve done,” says ensemble member Tom Cox. “I think that surprised people.”
“We do have a reputation for serious theatre,” says Andy White. “I’ve never gotten to play such a comic role.” Not many people have. White’s is the character in “Arabian Nights” who, with the generous support of many ensemble members, is credited with the historic fart that requires him to flee the country in disgrace.
Lookingglass also has a reputation for a stunningly athletic, “vigorous style,” and for, consequently, the most trips to the emergency room for a single company. Doug Hara, an ensemble member who contributes to that reputation with his standing back flips, shows me an example of his red badge of theatrical courage – blood stains on his drum.
In “The Jungle,” Larry DiStasi was hauled upside down by a rope tied around his ankles, boldly and simply showing that the brutality of the slaughterhouse extended to the immigrants working there. In Steven Berkoff’s “West,” standing back flips and back flips off a brick wall were symbolic of the hyper-punk angst of its stylized gangs.
In “Arabian Nights,” though, that vigorous style is turned to comedic ends, as their back flips (and hand stands with clapping feet) are the romping acts of madmen at play.
Also modified somewhat is the Lookingglass penchant for precisely choreographed group movements and overlapping repeated lines of dialogue, two favorite techniques of Zimmerman, a self-described control freak in remission. (She likes doing adaptations in the first place for the control over the text.)
“In the beginning, I was always trying to shoehorn [the group] into this aesthetic sense,” admits Zimmerman. “But with this show, I said the second day that I’m not going to choreograph the transitions like I normally do, to go for a looser feel. Which terrified me, frankly. But they’ve really paid me back in spades, because [the actors’] investment in the show, their sense of ownership in the play, is really huge. That’s why it’s been successful. Each one gets their turn to tell their story, and I love to see them do it.”
Zimmerman even went so far as to include a totally improvised scene, in which two actors, in order to get the real contents of a bag, must describe those contents. They get caught up in the contest, however, and try to outdo each other with the bizarreness and hugeness of whatever is in the bag, pitting their imaginations against each other. David Kersnar is the unofficial, unrecognized improv champion. “Kersnar is sort of dyslexic in his descriptions sometimes, which can be really beautiful,” says David Catlin, whose character is the contest judge forced to keep a straight face. “One time he said, ‘In that bag is the continent of “Artantica.” In that bag.'”
Sitting around with several members after a show, I make several attempts to further nail down the company’s singular aesthetic, which seems to run through enough Lookingglass plays to warrant the phrase, unfairly or not, “Lookingglass style.” Not content with the blank stares when I throw out “story-theatre style,” I press. Temple Williams says, “With some other companies, you know what you’re going to get. With us, it’s a crapshoot.” Zimmerman offers, though, “You know there’s going to be a stylistic framework.”
Kersnar, thoughtfully, lays it out. “The moment people come in here knowing what to expect is the moment we should get in the floral business.”
“Wait a minute,” protests Jenny Bacon. “I am in the floral business.”
Tom Cox offers, “It’s more that the way we work is based on a metaphorical vocabulary.” That vocabulary is the pool of approaches that the various actors and directors dip into.
That vocabulary, with oft-repeated words like formal movements and minimal props, it is fair to say, is highly influenced by the Performance Studies department at Northwestern. (As Jenny Bacon, a non-member who plays the part of Scheherezade, notes, “Their mentors are my mentors.”)
Zimmerman quotes a favorite professor, Leland Roloff, also a Jungian scholar, who advised her, “You’ll find that when you’re being your most idiosyncratic, that’s when you discover you’re at your most universal.”
In other words, cultivating the enthusiasm of the audience.
Says Zimmerman: “I think the audience loves it when they get to fill in the rest, like, ‘I get it. The sticks are oars, now the sticks are branches of the tree. Now they’re part of a pen to trap the sheep in.’ I think the audience feels more involved in a dialogue with the play when it’s using its imagination. Kids understand this aesthetic. That when I put on the hat, I am the bride.” Adds Catlin, “You can’t see that on TV or film. At least I’ve never seen it. It makes it another reason to go to the theatre.”
“It takes a phenomenal amount of money to create a natural world on stage and we don’t have it,” Zimmerman says. “We don’t have that option and it’s made us work harder, to think in a more metaphorical way about everything.” Cox adds, “I think, though, that even if we did have the money, we would continue to pursue that aesthetic.”
Everyone agrees. “It’s just a more poetic way of proceeding. More rich. More multiple meanings,” says Zimmerman. “It’s maybe an acquired trait,” adds Smith, “but I wouldn’t want to work any other way. The audience has to use their minds. It pulls them in a different way.”
Kersnar lays it out again. “It’s easier for someone to go jump on Catlin’s back than it is for us to go rent a donkey.”
Kersnar is not just being practical; he knows that Catlin loves to hoist his fellow members about.
At the end of their warm-up session, members have their various rituals. Catlin’s seems to be carrying someone around the stage atop his head. DiStasi and Hara, meanwhile, do two standing back flips together. “It’s a ritual,” says Hara. “It’s kind of a systems check to make sure everything is in working order.”
Good thing for Lookingglass that it’s easier to pack up rituals than donkeys. Because for two of the past three summers, the entire company has spent two weeks in Maine—to work on “Jungle,” and last summer to work on “Arabian Nights.” It was an epic journey itself and surely one of the reasons the ensemble is so uniquely tight-knit.
Lookingglass artistic director Phil Smith, whose parents own the summer home and barn that was the temporary home of the ensemble, says that with “significant others” the number reached 40, with a caravan of nine cars and a big truck to carry the lights and costumes and Oriental rugs.
They performed “Arabian Nights” for the people of Islesboro Island, Maine, some of whom were bigwig vacationers. “We had a guy from the Andy Warhol Foundation who liked it a lot,” Smith notes.
But more than make big-time connections for the group, it was a way for every member of the cast to get to know and to develop a unique trust, says Bacon.
Catlin describes the difference between working with the ensemble and working with other casts. “You hurt people quicker,” he says simply. “There’s not a lot of dancing around people’s egos. But you forgive quicker. It’s like brothers and sisters.” He and Smith play tricks on each other and others just to make sure that family feeling sticks.
Some of the members work together in jobs outside of theatre. Some of them live together. But they all seem to be the others’ biggest fans. I ask several members to describe their favorite scenes in “Arabian Nights”; they virtually all talk about what someone else was doing. Since all 16 members are onstage virtually the whole time, they spend much of the play sitting on the oriental rugs, ottomans and pillows, being an audience, watching their colleagues spin their tales. The play is new every night for them, too, especially with an improv scene, and, with all the tight choreography, the chance to bump into one another.
“Sometimes I’ll look over to the audience and they’ll be laughing and enjoying the play,” says Meredith Zinner, “and I’ll see someone looking at me and I’ll catch myself and remember that, Oh, I’m supposed to be acting right now, not looking at the audience.”
“Everyone in the cast really loves this play,” says Bacon. “That’s rare. Everyone enjoys everyone’s work. With some plays, they make you feel like you punch in, punch out.” It’s not just because everyone has a central role in one of the stories, says Jenny. It’s the support of the ensemble. “They make you feel like you’ve been there for years.”
Audiences will soon have the chance to join the cast in enjoying “Arabian Nights.” It is re-opening Friday for a five-week run at Remains, after turning away literally hundreds of standbys from its run at Chicago Filmmakers.
Audiences around the world might have the chance to see it, too. There are efforts to take “Arabian Nights” on the road—perhaps to London, New York or LA. With connections that Andy White made while appearing in “Another Time” with Albert Finney, at Steppenwolf, the company has made an impression on the London International Theatre Festival.
Their competition for a place at that festival includes Karen Finley, the Wooster Group and Peter Sellars. It is as formidable as it gets, but also shows the level of company this company keeps.
If they’re not chosen, though, one can only feel sorry for those Londoners, et al, who will miss the opportunity to cultivate a little enthusiasm.