Review "The Arabian Nights": A Magic Carpet Ride

The Arabian Nights
Lookingglass Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
August 6, 2009

Get over that the main story of a story within a story within a story is… a story of a woman forced to tell stories at knife point for nearly three years and you will become victim to the enchantment of The Arabian Nights. The music, the lighting, the dancing, erotic elements of the multiple tales lit the building in smoldering sensuality. I teetered between uncomfortably aware of gawking tendencies and delight that rolling around on a rug in loose pajamas could be so hot.

Mary Zimmerman, writer, director and choreographer, is the mastermind behind this brilliant production. Zimmerman uses only minimal scenery of oriental lanterns and rugs having opted to fill the stage with her fourteen actors. The actors are the interactive scenery and the audience is challenged to decide who to watch. For me, it was obvious that the night, The Arabian Nights, belonged to the ladies. Stacey Yen, serving as the primary narrator, not only marvelously verbally mimicked a character, but physically shadowed. It was fascinating to watch her gestures synchronized perfectly to her story’s character. Minita Gandhi and Emjoy Gavino were exceptionally fluid portraying a variety of different characters. By donning just a cap, Emjoy intriguingly changed her look from belly dancer to boy. Emjoy serves the simple warning to any gal about the danger of putting on a hat.

Although I loved this show, there were a couple speed bumps for me. One of the tales allows two actors to improvise their parts. The audience and cast mates seemed to enjoy it, but for me any improv is too long (stick to the writer’s words). Also, the fast-paced, high energy of the first half of the show leaves the audience breathlessly awaiting the explosion of excitement following intermission. The first tale in Act 2 is more wordy than visual leading to just a few moments of… “come on! somebody roll around on the rug.” Following that long tale, it does pick up especially in one of the last scenes when all the characters are simultaneously acting out different stories in a wonderfully exciting and chaotic climax.

My evening side kick, Jen , described the show as dynamic, colorful and clever.

Pre-show, we dined al fresco at Bistro 110, 110 E. Pearson. Bistro was featuring a special menu as their salute to Julia Child. Although the duck with peaches sounded delectable, I knew my fish eating vegetarian (too lazy to look that word up) gal pal wouldn’t be any assistance in eating ½ duck. So, we went split-zies on Julia’s scallops paired with a nice Bordeaux. For starters, we ordered the brie stuffed artichoke. The sauce was so amazing that I wanted to dip my bread and my hand in it. Bistro 110 guests should always request Nathan’s section, his recommendations were flawless. Not only did he encourage me to dip my hand in the artichoke sauce, he gave us the recipe for it.

Once again sensibility of my evening companion prevailed and I once again boarded the CTA 146 without a post-show drink. It seemed like a thousand and one nights before the overcrowded 146 made its appearance at the Water Tower stop. Perhaps, CTA could take a lesson from The Arabian Nights , dim the lights, add a rug, exchange the unflattering bus driver’s uniform for some flowing robes, who knows where a moonlit drive down LSD will lead?

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