Chicago-based playwright Mary Zimmerman is known for taking classic stories and giving them a modern reimagining for the stage, from Homer's Odyssey to Ovid's Metamorphoses, for which she won a 2002 Tony Award. She also landed a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant." So it is with high hopes that one approaches University Theatre's production of Zimmerman's Arabian Nights, playing at Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre through Dec. 9.
While this production, directed by Norma Saldivar and starring a dozen of the university's MFA students in acting, is ambitious, it is also quite uneven in tone. It ranges from the broadest humor (fart jokes, anyone?) to serious discussion of the Koran. While to some extent this is due to the nature of the source material - stories within a story - the result is less than satisfying.
The basic premise will be familiar to many theatergoers: Scheherazade is to be married off to a vengeful king. Once cuckolded, the king now marries virgins, beds them, and then kills them, a new one each night. To prolong her fate, the clever Scheherazade weaves an ongoing series of fanciful and bawdy tales to entertain the king. The Middle Eastern epic of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night has provided fodder for countless writers, poets and filmmakers, from Dickens to Disney.
University Theatre's production bills itself as "visually stunning," and on this score the production doesn't disappoint. Working within the modest confines of Hemsley Theatre, set designer Joseph Varga effectively conveys a palace entrance and courtyard; hanging, flickering lamps help set the mood. Costume designer Gail Brassard's outfits are marked by rich colors, diaphanous fabrics and tinkling bells.
All 12 cast members must take on multiple roles. Given Zimmerman's script, a brew of different stories and tones, their acting styles are also divergent, from the straightforwardly dramatic to campy comedy. In one of Scheherazade's tales, a jester is prodded by his king to marry, but the jester's wife cheats on him with a succession of men who show up at the house the minute he leaves.
But all is not exotic fantasy. Zimmerman introduces a contemporary element into these tales of faraway places and times; the show begins with U.S. soldiers rappelling in. They seem perplexed by their opulent surroundings and, as these actors take on different roles throughout the show, their camouflage pants and boots are still visible.
While it's clear that Zimmerman is reaching for commentary on our current geopolitical problems (the play was written around the time of the first Gulf War), her meaning is obscure. Is she suggesting that we know little about this culture into which we have inserted ourselves? If so, that's a legitimate point, but it's disconnected from most of the middle of the show.
Though it seems silly to criticize something for being too nondidactic, perhaps the audience needs a clearer sense of where Zimmerman is coming from for Arabian Nights to have the impact it's aiming for. It's simply too loaded to insert modern-day soldiers into timeless Middle Eastern tales without producing something more substantial.