The Arabian Nights

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

at Goodman Theatre Studio

By Jack Helbig

Chicago has never been a particularly poetic town. We’ve always seemed to see ourselves as too tough and vulgar and prosaic for anything as genteel as poetry. We were fascinated with hog butchers and gangsters and all that. When our writers have waxed poetical–as Nelson Algren did from time to time–they’ve always been careful to write a poetry of the streets, brutal and beautiful, bitter and dark and, truth be told, a little overripe in its romanticized desolation. You can hear an echo of this wise-guy poetic in Studs Terkel’s on-air babble about the “little guy making the dough” or “the big man on the take” and in the contemporary poems of urban angst shouted out every Sunday night at the Green Mill’s Poetry Slam.

Even Chicago theater, at least the theater that gets national notice, has been long on bombast and grit and urban realism–but short on poetry. Which is why Mary Zimmerman was such a revelation. Before Zimmerman became a director she was a poet. And from the beginning, it was her poet’s ear for what Roland Barthes called “the rustle of language” that set her apart from other Chicago directors. While others were trying to re-create the magic of Steppenwolf’s golden age, producing tin-eared shows that aimed to be nastier, dirtier, bleaker, and more realistic (as in Tracy Letts’s 1993 thriller Killer Joe), Zimmerman was taking language-heavy texts like the Odyssey or Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark and weaving them into theatrical tone poems.

Yes, her shows are distinctive for their eye candy: beautiful costumes, sumptuous sets, baubles and bangles and beads. And that too represented a break with Chicago’s gritty aesthetic. But close your eyes in a Zimmerman show and you’ll discover how much of its beauty is aural. It’s her gift for language that gives Zimmerman’s adaptations their tensile strength. And it’s what saves the current revival of The Arabian Nights.

Compared to the original production, which burst onto the scene five years ago and gave both Zimmerman and the Lookingglass Theatre Company recognition, this version is full of flaws, tiny flaws that would have undermined a less solid script. Part of the problem may be that this is the third and final stop for the show, which had a nice long run of several months in Los Angeles and a short sweet week recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Though the set looked beautiful and the costumes were still in remarkably good shape, the acting was not. Especially during the first act, when a number of the show’s funniest comic moments failed to earn big laughs because the actors–most notably David Kersnar–were trying too hard.

But I don’t mean to single out Kersnar. With the exception of Laura Eason and Andrew White, both of whom have grown in power and authority over the last five years, most of the actors reprising their roles just didn’t measure up to the memories I had of them from 1992. To make matters worse, the two best actors from the show’s first incarnation–Jenny Bacon and Chris Donahue–have not reprised their roles as King Shahryar and Scheherezade. Adam Dannheisser, lacking Donahue’s grace, charm, and sardonic menace, plays the king as a simple bully and thug, and Naama Potok, who has none of Bacon’s magnetism, is more like a schoolteacher than a sly, subtle, storytelling seductress.

Still, somehow the show is glorious. Maybe because Zimmerman’s script is virtually actor-proof. Distilled from the over 300 tales that Scheherezade tells King Shahryar to stave off her own death in the original Thousand and One Nights, Zimmerman’s script is a mosaic of dozens of small roles. No one in the show is required to remain in character for more than five minutes at a time. Even the actors playing the “leads,” Shahryar and Scheherezade, spend much of their time onstage simply watching the tales unfold.

Since each role is just one brush stroke in Zimmerman’s impressionist landscape, the impact of individual actors is minimal. It really doesn’t matter if, for example, Kersnar cuts up too much or Jane C. Cho isn’t quite believable as an exotic dancing girl. They’re only two actors in a crowded tableau: all the performers are onstage for only a few brief moments before the show moves on to another location or another story.

The Arabian Nights throws Zimmerman’s ear-pleasing language into the foreground, where it belongs and where it can seduce us in exactly the same way that Scheherezade’s storytelling seduces the king. Because in theater, as in poetry and life, seduction is what it’s all about.

Zimmerman’s The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci offers a seduction of a different kind. More intellectual, or at least more academic, than The Arabian Nights, this play is a 90-minute found poem constructed of passages lifted from Leonardo da Vinci’s voluminous unbound notebooks, written between 1475 and 1519. Da Vinci touched on an amazingly wide range of topics–physics, anatomy, aerodynamics, aesthetics–all of them described in a poetic style no modern-day scientist or art critic would dare use for fear of being too arty or (in the case of arts criticism) too clear. Sample line: “All the while I thought I was learning how to live I was learning how to die.”

Da Vinci’s observations are a wonderful foundation for a show; I remember being deeply moved by the revival of The Notebooks at the Goodman Theatre Studio in November of 1993. (Zimmerman first produced her adaptation at the Edge of the Lookingglass in May 1989.) This time around, however, the show is less persuasive. For one thing, the current production doesn’t have the energy or fire of the 1993 staging. The Notebooks cast, like The Arabian Nights cast, seems tired. And like The Arabian Nights, this production was first presented elsewhere, at the Seattle Repertory Theatre two months ago. Watching Zimmerman’s actors going through the motions of this show, it’s hard not to believe that they gave their all to Seattle and we’re being offered what’s left.

To be fair, however, I’m not sure how much “all” some of the actors have to give. Few in this version evince the range and depth of Christopher Donahue, reprising his role from 1993. The women in particular seem underrehearsed and awkward, moving through the dancelike choreography with an odd gracelessness and little awareness of how to speak Zimmerman’s beautiful lines. Sadly, the two strongest women from the earlier staging–Laura Eason and Meredith Zinner–are not in this production. They’re sorely missed.

A deeper problem is that The Notebooks at its heart is just an interesting academic exercise. Lacking a strong narrative line, it’s highly dependent on a whole array of theatrical tricks–excellent musical design, beautiful costumes, and an expensive playground of a set–just to keep our attention. Once you’ve seen the show, you know all the tricks. And the text alone, however beautiful, without a narrative just can’t sustain our interest for a full 90 minutes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Arabian Knights theater still/ The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci photo by Patrick Bennett.