A new Arabian Nights adaptation comes to Berkeley Rep.
When King Shahryar discovers he’s been cuckolded, he vows to marry a new woman every night and have her killed at dawn. Newly married to Shahryar, Scheherazade defers her execution by spinning a series of exquisite fables, each one more intricate than the last.
Thus begins The Arabian Nights, the ancient book of myths and fairy tales from Persia, India, and Egypt. The collection of fantasy stories is peopled by genies, kings, and talking animals. For her theatrical adaptation, though, Mary Zimmerman had a vision that didn’t include the Sinbads and Ali Babas most readers associate with the work.
“In this adaptation, I deal with what I call the domestic stories,” says Zimmerman, whose Arabian Nights is currently making its Bay Area premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. “There aren’t any flying carpets. There are certainly strange and mysterious and romantic elements, but nothing actually supernatural. I just kept being drawn to those really human stories.” Written and directed by Zimmerman and performed by a 15-member cast, the play continues through January 4 on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage.
It was a characteristic choice for Zimmerman, whose unique approach to adapting mythic works has made her one of today’s most intriguing theater artists. In plays—including Metamorphoses, based on the writings of Ovid, and Argonautika, about Jason and the Argonauts—the award-winning writer and director always manages to make the otherworldly feel surprisingly close to home.
Like many, Zimmerman first encountered The Arabian Nights as a child. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, the period leading up to the first Gulf War, that she began considering the stories’ theatrical promise. Dismayed by the way the Middle East was portrayed in the news—”all that talk about bombing Baghdad back to the Stone Age”—she found herself wanting to take another look. “I started wondering, ‘What are those stories really about?'”
Genies aside, what she discovered was a world curiously akin to our own. “Those stories have everything to say about love and jealousy, shame and guilt, hope and desire—all the things that make us human,” she says. “Across the seas and across time, they are just so utterly familiar.”
Like its source material, The Arabian Nights begins with King Shahryar’s marital troubles. “All of the stories in the play are framed by that uber-story,” says Zimmerman, adding that the successive episodes—by turns comic, erotic, dramatic, and reflective—serve to humanize the king. With the supernatural elements excised, the play focuses on universal emotions and the redemptive uses of narrative.
“In a sense, The Arabian Nights is the world’s greatest testament to the power of storytelling,” she says. “Not that you think about that when you’re watching it—you do get involved in the stories—but it’s about how Scheherezade prolongs her own life, and brings her husband back to the world, through this act of imagination. I think that’s a very profound message.”
Zimmerman has been telling stories onstage for nearly two decades, having developed her craft in the chamber theatre tradition. She traces her love of myth to her childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska; combined with her gift for adaptation, the result is a growing list of vibrant theater works. Berkeley Rep has hosted the West Coast premieres of several Zimmerman plays, including Metamorphoses, Journey to the West, and Argonautika.
Although her directorial credits include plays by others, what sets Zimmerman apart are the productions that she both writes and directs. Metamorphoses, for example, received the 2002 Tony Award for Best Director. “I’m most engaged when I’m doing both,” she says. Her process is unusual; she doesn’t start writing until the start of rehearsals. “I’m normally only a day ahead of my cast in terms of the script,” she explains. “The text is always very fluid.”