Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 17
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
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“THE FAMILY DANCE”: Sheikh Al-Islam (Liz Dengel, center) resists an unpleasant surprise, as the family (left to right: Dave Holtz, Jerry Peng, Stacy Testa and Irfan Kherani) of his daughter’s new husband moves in for the celebrations, in Mary Zimmerman’s “The Arabian Nights,” playing at Theatre Intime through April 26.

Stories Within Stories Within Stories in “The Arabian Nights” Feature Moral Complexity, Bawdy Hijinks, and Steamy Romance

Donald Gilpin

Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical adaptations of The Odyssey, Argonautika (Jason’s Heroic Quest for the Golden Fleece), traditional fairy tales (The Secret in the Wings) and the myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses have won her international acclaim as a playwright and director, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Tony Award, and a richly productive and mutually rewarding liaison with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.

Her Arabian Nights (1992), though created long before her major works of the past decade, embodies an enticing sampling of the love of storytelling and the delight in theatricality that exemplify Ms. Zimmerman’s distinctive dramatic voice. Theatre Intime’s current production, under the direction of sophomore Katie Benedict, brings to life this magical tale with its bountiful demonstrations of the power of storytelling.

Midway in the second of two fast-paced acts, Harun Al-Rashid examines an impressively wise and spirited young woman named Sympathy the Learned:

Harun: What makes kings?

Sympathy: Words.

Harun: What makes the world?

Sympathy: Words.

Harun: What can destroy an empire?

Sympathy: Words.

It is the words of Scheherezade (Jessica Taylor) that weave story after story, night after night for 1001 nights to keep King Shahryar (JD Walters) delaying her murder as he eagerly awaits the next episode. Scheherezade and the storytellers within her stories and (like the Chinese boxes within boxes) even the storytellers within those stories demonstrate the power of stories to amuse, to entertain, to avert danger, to assert identity, and to impart knowledge and wisdom. It is the words of more than fifty different characters here, created by just six male and six female performers in this versatile undergraduate ensemble, presenting more than a dozen stories, that make kings, make worlds, and destroy empires.

“The Arabian Nights” runs Thursday through Saturday, April 24-26, with performances Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. For tickets call 609-258-1742 or visit

With minimal setting — a couple of Persian carpets to establish elegant living quarters — by Elizabeth Kassler-Taub; evocative lighting, most notably an array of beautifully rich colors on the cyclorama; and a suggestive selection of Eastern costumes by Elyse Powell, this production effectively creates the exotic world of ancient Baghdad. It is the ensemble of actors, however, as they shift rapidly from one tale to the next, that bears the primary responsibility for embodying these characters and their extravagant stories.

Intime is obviously at a disadvantage without the rich technical or financial resources — lighting, sound, special effects, costuming, staging potential — that McCarter was able to employ so creatively in its production last month of Ms. Zimmerman’s Argonautika, and of course Ms. Zimmerman’s directorial genius is also missing here.

Although this Intime production does not rise to the sparkling level of magic that Ms. Zimmerman brings to the direction of her creative masterpieces, these young actors display extraordinary collaborative skill, spirit, energy, and understanding.

The stories included provide an entertaining range of tone and subject matter, from serious moral fables to the tale of Abu Al-Hasan. Ms. Zimmerman presents a heavy dose of erotic material and an enticing blend of psychological complexity and bawdy farce. This is adult material — no Disney versions here and none of the most famous tales of Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

There are many highlights and many memorable moments throughout the evening. Veronica Siverd is particularly adept and appropriately alluring as Perfect Love, driving Madman (Billy Hepfinger) to distraction. “The Perfidy of Wives” concludes the first act with four eager lovers — the Pastrycook (Irfan Kherani), the butcher (Stacy Testa), the Greengrocer (Dave Holtz) and the Clarinetist (Mr. Hepfinger) — of the Jester’s wife (Bethy Atkins), all discovered hiding out in the Jester’s privy. The Jester (Jerry Peng) delivers the guilty foursome to the court of Harun al-Rashid (Trenton Arthur), where each must tell a fanciful tale in order to mitigate his punishment.

The second act takes a more serious turn. It features an intriguing exchange of Eastern secular and Islamic philosophy in the confrontation of Liz Dengel’s formidable Sympathy the Learned with the elders, followed by the sad, multifaceted love story of Aziz (Mr. Kherani) and Azizah (Ms. Atkins). Carolyn Edelstein, in the roles of Slave Girl, Girl in the Garden and others rounds out the consistently strong cast.

Ms. Benedict has rehearsed her ensemble intelligently, set a brisk pace and deftly woven together the multiple scenes and shifts of subject matter and mood. Amidst the complexity of this dizzying array of stories there are moments where the audience needs more clarity — in diction and in explicit presentation of the action.

Most problematic, but thankfully brief, is a five-minute “Confusion of Stories,” which frustratingly attempts, to no avail, to convey six stories simultaneously. Some members of the audience, however, did seem to enjoy this odd interlude. Could it be that people under 30 are more experienced and proficient than I am at processing multiple simultaneous sensory stimuli?

Though set in Baghdad with references to Basra, Mosul, and other Middle Eastern sites whose names have taken on an eerie resonance during the past several years of the war in Iraq, Mary Zimmerman’s play evokes a world far removed from today’s headlines. This Baghdad is the “city of peace and poets,” where the wonders of storytelling, in this vivid, engaging Intime production, create a world of rich legend and enchantment, humor, and humanity.

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