Magic carpet ride

In retrospect, the Vexler’s 2007 production of Mary Zimmerman’s splashy Metamorphoses — literally set in a pool — appears to have set something of an artistic, um, high-water mark; thus it makes all the sense in the world for the theater to revisit an earlier, though similar, work: Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Arabian Nights. Like Metamorphoses, The Arabian Nights largely concerns the power of story telling, and, like Metamorphoses, it’s less a traditional play than a riot of dance, movement, song, and text. (Indeed, Zimmerman’s roots are in performance studies, fostered by the go-for-broke artistic clime of Chicago and that city’s Lookingglass Theatre.) It’s thus a dream assignment for a San Antonio director: as with any Zimmerman piece, the play is not the thing. It’s all about stagecraft and invention, especially when performed, as here, in-the-round. As director, Paul Fillingim guides a solid production, with a few delightfully theatrical set pieces; he doesn’t, however, always mine the text for its non-naturalistic potential, preferring to let the entertaining stories (and the actors) speak for themselves.

Now, most audience members will recall the basic premise of The Arabian Nights: a cuckolded King ravishes and executes a virgin every evening, what with nothing on TV and all. He meets his match, however, in the beautiful and cunning Scheherazade, who delays the King’s metaphorical and literal dagger with her intricately woven tales of romance, danger, piety, and coitus interruptus. Apollo Campos overplays the King’s anger management issues into caricatured villainy, but Rigel Nunez makes for a neatly understated narrator, confident in the power of a cliffhanger to see her through ’til dawn — or at least intermission. The cleverness of Zimmerman’s adaptation is that Scheherazade’s tales work on (at least) two levels: they offer the King edifying yarns of human folly while providing the modern audience a window into the narrative traditions of Islamic culture.

It seems banal and trite to say that there are some really good stories in The Arabian Nights, but here goes: there are some really good stories in The Arabian Nights. (My favorite legend involves the room- and sinus-clearing powers of flatulence — a tale that ends not with a bang, but a toot. This might also have been a chance for the Vexler to push the envelope in terms of aroma design.) Eric Lozano’s tortured Madman anchors a clever, affecting account of love spurned and earned, while a sextet of actors neatly enacts the bawdy tale of the Jester’s Wife, largely centered around a primly-termed “privy.” At occasional junctures, Kimberly Stephenson lends her lovely voice to William Karl Hedrick’s literally incidental music: just a few drums here, some unaccompanied vocals there. Yet the production screams for more.

Ditto for Fillingim’s staging, which does so much right, but which could have soared. Indeed, there are some very felicitous moments, perfectly in sync with Ken Frazier’s flying carpet ride of a set (largely strewn with what seemed to be enviably comfy pillows). So, when skiffs glide through Baghdad, the ensemble coalesces into a pair of illuminated, linen barges: just two ships passing in the (Arabian) night. Or sometimes the actors morph into camels (dromedary, for you connoisseurs); or leaping lunatics; or even lowly doors — portals from one story to the next. When, however, the action bogs down in wordiness — such as the second act’s equivalent of an Islamic catechism — one wishes for a stronger, more fanciful directorial touch. Though Frazier’s lighting design marks the narrative transitions via a pair of lowered lanterns, individual scenes are rarely shaped by the lighting itself — a missed opportunity, given the fairytale world of Zimmerman’s imagination. Tami Kai’s Sinbad-esque costumes are as kaleidoscopic and exotic as the tales they help to tell.

For all of its timelessness, The Arabian Nights is a politically charged work, premiering in 1994 after the First Gulf War, and growing only more rich (and, indeed, more necessary) in a post-9/11 world. I won’t give away the ending without a suitable bribe (a virgin, say), but only note that there’s something profoundly touching about a celebration of the traditions of Islam presented by a Jewish Community Center. (Or by any American troupe anywhere, for that matter.) In a sense, that’s the most wonderful tale of all. •

The Arabian Nights
Through Nov 13
7:30pm Thu, 8pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun (no performance Oct 31)

Vexler Theater
12500 NW Military Hwy
(210) 302-6835