There are two types of perfume. One kind hits with a ravishing force. You recognize the top notes instantly, as they drag you down an olfactory lane whether you want to or not. The other kind is subtly layered, ingratiating itself into your memory with a more delicate air. I expected Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Arabian Nights to be a powerful whiff of rose attar or sandalwood, instead, it’s more elusive, like night jasmine on the breeze.
Meandering metaphor? Well, yes, and that seems to be the play’s point. After almost three hours of stories intertwined with stories, you might feel like you are on the hunt for that beautiful scent. This isn’t a play intending to make a political statement about our continuing entanglement with the Middle East, or even a social statement about women’s rights. I may have wished for those things, and felt sorely disappointed when I didn’t get them, but perhaps that desire for “relevance” was misguided. I didn’t fully appreciate the production’s intention until a few days after seeing it, when an image of rolling bodies in white like ghostly sheaves of paper in the wind re-entered my mind.
The best way to approach The Arabian Nights, performed in the round at the Fichandler in Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater, is to just drop any expectations and let the perfume take you where it will. It’s a drifting play, born of improvisation, about the healing power of myth as a mad king is shown the slow road to salvation.
But it’s not all perfumed nights and sensuality. There’s some castration. Oh, and a lot of farting. Continue reading