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Revamped "Arabian Nights" is Something to Ululate About

There are moments in Mary Zimmerman hip and lively adaptation, “Arabian Nights” (just extended at Berkeley Rep) when the layers upon layers of the play’s shaggy-dog stories produce a punch drunkenness in the audience. We may have expected a old-world tableau of Egyptian intrigue. What we witness are winding yarns within yarns that tell far fetched tales of oddballs; a farting man, an randy green grocer with a big “cucumber”, a scabby, dribbling, gruesome bride. The comedy is low. The sub-plots dizzying.

These giddy moments – weirdly – made me think of the film, "The Aristocrats" (the obscene, scatological stand-up comedy doc featuring Sarah Silverman -- not the Disney cartoon about Parisian cats featuring Eva Gabor its often confused with.)

Sure, it’s an unlikely comparison: the first is a world premiere of the critically acclaimed director Mary Zimmerman’s refashioning of a 9th century Arabian classic -- “One Thousand and One Nights.” The second is a 2005 documentary about a dirty joke.

But both are really about story telling and the endless possibilities to riff on the same story. And both use the ‘shaggy doggyness’ to a preposterous degree.

Giddy, gross and far over the top, the most inebriating of these Arabian tales benefit from the humor of excess. Part of the laugh is the endlessness of it all.

Like the joke ‘The Aristocrats’, 1001 Arabian Nights probably has 1001 variations. Characters, like Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad have been part of the mix but the one constant has been the framing device. A cruel king Shahryar, (Ryan Arztberger), once betrayed, ensures his bride’s fidelity by each night marrying a virgin and each dawn, killing her.

By telling riveting stories, night after night, with well-timed cliff-hangers, his last bride, Scheherazade, (Sofia Jean Gomez) saves herself through her storytelling arts.

The well-told tale proves mightier than the sword. These range from romance to drama, stories design to kindle the king’s humanity, but it’s the bawdy farce -- a confederacy of hucksters and cheats, cuckolds and cretins – that can stop a murderous monarch in his tracks.

Zimmerman’s previous reanimated ancient myths, including the Tony-winning “Metamorphosis” and last year’s ab-fab “Argonautika” are all modernized for our viewing pleasure and sprinkled with contemporary wit. (In” Metamorphosis”, memorably staged with an on-stage wet pool, the teen son of the sun god, “borrows dad’s keys,” totals the family chariot and sets the earth a-flame.) In “Arabian Nights”, you can spy homages to Steve Martin’s King Tut dance and a sample of the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.”

Ramiz Monsef, Evan Zes and Allen Gilmore are among the throng of hams weaving witty fables. And the enticing, exotic mood created by song and chant, dance and drumming was conceived by co-produced by Andre Pluess and The Lookingglass Ensemble The Arabian Nights will travel to Missouri and to Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company in 2009 and after that, who knows?