Lookingglass Theatre Company

at Chicago Filmmakers

There’s an old Arabic saying about The Arabian Nights, a collection of 300 Indian, Persian, and Arabic stories assembled over a period of 11 centuries: it is so entertaining yet so vast that no one can read all of it without dying of pleasure. Sadly, most of the tales have been all but forgotten in the 20th century. The collection has been banned in several modern Arab states because of its bawdy humor and sensuality, considered offensive to Islamic fundamentalism. And in the West only the tales suitable for children are known.

Lewd, noble, crass, poetic, and sensuous, Lookingglass Theatre’s presentation of a small portion of these tales, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, is enough to make you leave the theater feeling as if you had almost died of pleasure.

Zimmerman and the cast and designers seem to have bathed themselves not only in the stories’ cultural context but in their whimsy. The set (by Allison Reeds and Michael Lapthorn, lushly lit in blue and gold by Kenneth Moore) transforms the black-box theater into the interior of an Arabian palace, with thick indigo fabric draped on the walls and ornate Islamic prayer lamps hanging above elegantly scattered parquet tables, Persian rugs, and pillows.

The Lookingglass version of The Arabian Nights is like a stimulating collection of bedtime tales for mature, intelligent adults. Stories within stories unfold, a set of Chinese boxes. All the tales are told by Scheherezade, a young woman newly betrothed to the viciously angry King Shahryar. Three years earlier, Shahryar discovered his first wife in the arms of another man. Since then, in a rather shocking form of insanity, he’s taken to marrying a different virgin every night, consummating the marriage, and slashing the woman’s throat by dawn. Scheherezade, one of the few remaining virgins in the kingdom, knows her fate. She tells these stories to save her life.

The first story Lookingglass brings to life concerns an upstanding young merchant in Baghdad who holds himself above all carnal desires although many beautiful women enter his shop daily. One day, a shy young servant brings a letter to him from her mistress. The letter is a rather steamy expression of love, and the merchant, feeling that his honor has been slighted, beats the servant (in a beautiful yet frightening bit of choreography) and throws her out.

Several years later an incredibly beautiful veiled woman and her servants (dancing an enticing belly dance) enter his shop. The merchant is immediately overcome by desire, which becomes even more urgent when the woman asks him to place a bracelet around her ankle. Her ankle is so delicate, the merchant finds himself unable even to put the rings around it, exclaiming, “These rings are too large and far too rough for ankles like yours!”

She denies that she can be so beautiful, saying that everyone has told her that she has elephant legs, her skin is a horrible parchment pitted with smallpox, and her hidden fruits are the ugliest in all the world. He can’t believe her words as she asks him to place a bracelet on her wrist, a necklace around her neck, and a belt around her waist. Each time she reveals a part of her body, he becomes even more delirious with desire, exclaiming over her beauty while she denies that it can be so: her father always tells her how ugly she is and has removed all the mirrors from her house.

As Scheherezade tells her tale it takes on a life of its own, with an ensemble of actors playing different roles, a camel one moment and a slave the next. The king sits wide-eyed in the corner, as entranced by the story as the audience, temporarily forgetting his murderous plans. Suddenly, at the climax, dawn breaks and he has to wait until the next evening to hear the rest.

For one thousand and one nights (three in this production), Scheherezade saves her life by telling stories. Not all the tales are sexual. Some are merely entertaining, and others, like the story of “Sympathy the Learned,” provide some solid Islamic moral instruction.

Lookingglass made a good choice in The Arabian Nights–it’s so well suited to their Grotowski-inspired manner of incorporating stylized and acrobatic movements into the story. Zimmerman, a precise and skillful director, knows how to bring out the suspense, charm, and sensuality of each tale. Some of the show’s best moments are the highly stylized sex scenes–for example a hilariously acrobatic tryst between an oversexed young servant and her numerous lovers, or a tense yet tender pas de deux in which the king makes love to Scheherezade with his dagger in his hand.

There’s not a bad actor in the whole Lookingglass ensemble. Actually there aren’t many good ones, either–most of them are excellent, so it wouldn’t be quite fair to single certain ones out. See the show and you’ll know what I mean.