Inventive storytelling in Arabian Nights, sure—gotta expect that from any reasonably competent rendering of the Scheherezade tales—but inventive flatulence? Mary Zimmerman’s captivating romp contains the tale of a fart so richly, satisfyingly epic both in the farting and in the telling that it not only mortifies the guy who let it rip, but makes those bean-eating cowboys in Blazing Saddles seem downright decorous. This raucous, engaging evening may otherwise be concerned with weightier matters—betrayal of loved ones, pride in learning, the desire of poor men to be kings and vice-versa—but let it be said that, serious subject or no, Zimmerman will not be out-playfulled while taking an audience on a theatrical journey. A few weeks ago at the Harman Center, she turned Candide into a pop-up musical playground. Here at Arena Stage, she and her actors whip up a bazaar’s worth of weirdly engaging wonders, creating boats from lacquered tables, roads from bodies, prisons from shadows, and the palaces of ancient Baghdad from a few hanging lanterns and a stageful of richly patterned carpets.
The evening takes the form of its source material: A cuckolded and therefore embittered caliph (David DeSantos) who now beds and murders a fresh virgin every night meets his match in Scheherazade (Stacey Yen), a clever child who forestalls her own execution by telling him tales that invariably arrive at tantalizing cliffhangers just as dawn breaks. To hear each story’s conclusion, the caliph must grant her reprieve for another night, only to be captivated afresh as new characters spring to life, posing tricky conundrums that fascinate as they instruct.
A crack troupe adept at everything from pec-dancing to camel-impersonating quickly establishes that there’s method here: at first with bawdy, earthy stories, later with more rarefied, reflective ones, Scheherezade is teaching her emotion-hardened listener to feel again. And given our current national mood about all things Middle-Eastern, it’s easy to see why a revival of the show (originally created by Zimmerman in the shadow of the first Gulf War) proved popular with theatergoers in Berkeley, Kansas City, and Chicago before alighting here. It may have been conceived two decades ago, and deal with centuries-old fables, but it is nothing if not of-the-moment. At last Friday’s performance, during a bit that changes each night as random performers pick up a bag and describe its contents, an actor improvised a “Parable of the Fox and the Olbermann” almost simultaneously with the Countdown host’s announcement that he and MSNBC were parting company. And a concluding scene that gave audiences chills in 1992, as the sound of distant air-raid sirens accompanied the line “And the nights over Baghdad were white” still raises goosebumps.