Superb ‘Arabian Nights’ Is Not Meant for the Kids


The lesson of the first story in Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of “The Arabian Nights” is, more or less, seize the moment.

Likewise, Los Angeles should seize this offering from David Schwimmer of “Friends” fame. From his friends and colleagues in Chicago at the Lookingglass Theatre Company, he has imported this superb staging of centuries-old tales, told in story theater style, now at the Actors’ Gang Theater.

This isn’t about Aladdin, Sinbad or Ali Baba. Zimmerman and her company of 16 focus on less familiar, more intimate yarns from the vast medieval collection, many of them featuring strong women.


Though the stage is swathed in rugs, the carpets are not magic. No genies are on hand. Parents of “Aladdin” fans should know that this show’s concerns and its comedy are not for young children.

Instead, we hear of an upright merchant who unwisely took offense at the overtures of a forward woman, another woman’s farcical extramarital affairs, a couple of young lovers whose thwarted romance is restored with ridiculous ease and (actually, young children probably would appreciate this one) a legendary moment in the history of flatulence.

That’s the first half. The second half is more serious, with stories of the brainiest young woman in all of Islam, an unfaithful lover who has become a mock caliph as consolation for his lost loves, and a fan of a great musician who learns to share his favorite song. Plus a cacophonous montage of some of the other 1,001 stories.

When the show was first staged in 1992, Zimmerman acknowledged that the setting of most of these stories, Bagdad, had recently become famous for grim tales of woe instead of these shimmeringly alive stories. Without being didactic or even specific, the production adds a lyrical coda that brings home this sorry truth, abetted by the dramatic lighting of T.J. Gerckens.

As in the original, the many stories are framed as the life-or-death performances of Scheherezade (Naama Potok) in her bid to distract a murderous king (Adam Dannheiser, with Schwimmer filling in at a few performances). Also present in most of the stories is the thoughtful and judicious Caliph Harun al-Rashid (Philip Rayburn Smith), a real ruler of Bagdad between 786 and 809.

The company is remarkably cohesive and polished, indicating years of ensemble work together. Everyone plays at least two roles, but intricate group movement creates some of the most indelible imagery, such as when the entire cast is lined up in slumber, turning over in synchrony, or when the mock caliph “floats” in on a Tigris barge.


The evening is enriched by a score composed and performed by the company, using Middle Eastern instruments, and moments of sharply assertive dance and bright acrobatics. Allison Reeds designed a colorful array of robes and harem pants, veils and hats.

* “The Arabian Nights,” Actors’ Gang Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 19. $20. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.