The Arabian Night (1992) by Mary Zimmerman interweaves creative imagination, storytelling, fantasy, patriarchy, the struggle of women for self-determination, love and trust, sex and death. The latter two concepts are interdependent—Scheherazade uses her imagination and narrative abilities to escape death by the sultan, who for the last three or four years in the play has each night married a virgin and then killed her, out of anger over betrayal by his first wife. The sultan is a monster of the worst sort, but can he be redeemed?
As Scheherazade tells her tales, her characters literally come alive on the stage, materializing out of the shadows. She stops telling each tale just as dawn breaks, on a note of suspense or discovery, so that the sultan delays his plan to kill her in order to hear the end. The existence of the play itself, woven from her tales, depends on her success in maintaining the sultan’s interest. Sometimes a character in one of the tales will begin telling a second tale, and new characters appear. The pace of the play is fast, but not so much that the audience can’t enjoy the tales as they are told. As Scheherazade talks, over nearly a three-year period, her stories take on faintly allegorical or parabolic meanings, all designed, we can guess, to bring about a certain transformation.
As produced by the UGA Department of Theatre and Film Studies in October 2010, this play was entrancing and magical. Under the direction of David Saltz, the actors were in constant motion. They seemed to enjoy the play as much as the audience did. When they laughed in certain scenes, I wasn’t sure they were doing so because the play called for their laughter, or because they were entertained by what particular actors were doing. Jennifer Schottstädt as Scheherazade and Lynwoodt Jenkins as Harun al-Rashid were especially outstanding. Both are MFA performance students. Many others in the cast gave fine performances. Everyone, audience and players alike, seemed caught up in the play’s enthrallment.
The two acts of the play differ in mood. The first is wild and frenetic, full of comedy and ribaldry, while the second is more somber, drawing from Arabian myths and stories, Muslim teachings. The Arabian Nights calls in a subtle yet earnest way for cultural understanding. It dramatizes the power of imagination to create tales, to create life out of nothing, and to abolish it. It shows how imagination can enable self-definition and empowerment. Imagination is the source of the magic in this play, along with the inventiveness of the director, his crew, and the actors themselves. This UGA production was as entertaining as one could possible want.