M and I both love Mary Zimmerman’s work. As M said, even the shows of hers that don’t blow your mind as much as her others still beat most plays out there. She creates gorgeous productions, casts brilliant actors, and pulls them into a tight group capable of creating amazing theater out of thin air.
This play has been going on for literally three months. It opened in early November, was held over and extended because it was sold out all the way, and we were finally able to get a ticket for last night when they announced an extension during what was my Christmas holiday (which was slightly before everyone else’s Christmas holiday due to the vagaries of Southwest Airlines, but that’s a whole other story).
The show starts with piles of something or other covered in tarps, which you stare at during the pre-show. Then suddenly, drumming kicks in, the cast enters, and the stage is transformed into a sort of courtyard with pillows, platforms and carpets everywhere. The effect is spectacular, although later, reading the program, I learned the rugs are borrowed from a rare carpet store in Chicago and worth about $100,000, so the tarps may be more practical than showmanship.
Then, of course, Scheherezade begins spinning tales, acted out by an ensemble that’s brilliant at switching from character to character. There’s a bit of commedia, a lot of music, a touch of singing, and almost every second is extraordinary. (The show runs 2 1/2 hours, and there are one or two bits that run a little too long, including a seemingly-improvised stretch that only served to prove to this ex-improvisor that not everyone can improvise. But that’s nitpicking, I suppose.)
Every Mary Zimmerman play has at least one moment of theatricality that will stay with me forever. In this one, it was the way she evoked a boat just by having a line of people slowly walk across some platforms. Indescribable, but etched in my mind.
Spectacle, romance, intrigue, storytelling, sophistication, drama, humor. I can see why it’s been selling out, and I’m really glad we didn’t miss it.
Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman at Berkeley Rep, through Jan 18, except all remaining performances are SOLD OUT.