The play is Mary Zimmerman’s take on the "The Arabian Nights: The Book of 1,001 Nights", a compilation of many stories all set within its own “frame” story - sometimes complex, but with seemingly endless variety and, hence, interesting.
This show was a lesson for me. I purposely did NOT research it prior to seeing it. I wanted to have what I thought might be a more typical audience member’s experience.
Oh, my …! Mid-way through Act 1, I wanted to bolt out of the theatre. “HIGH SCHOOL” screamed in my head: amateurish acting; poor, uncoordinated singing; silly, slapstick, naughty schoolyard boy humor; and a set whose “stately” arabesque pillars rocked precariously when leaned on.
I was amazed. I’ve seen shows with some of the same cast and crew and couldn’t believe this was their considered artistic output.
I didn’t leave – rude is not in the job description. I stuck it out - and I’m very glad I did. Afterwards, I did my homework and discovered that my reaction is, apparently, exactly what Zimmerman intended.
Act I is overly long, even tedious – maybe 1 hour and 10 minutes. But I think, too, it is tailor-made for those with massive silly streaks. Many in the well-attended opening night audience laughed and laughed a lot. Act 2, which is much shorter, thankfully, had all the power and pull on the imagination that I associate with good theatre. The acting in Act 2 became VERY good; the story no longer slapstick; the coordination of voices much improved, and by the final fade to black, I felt I had experienced something worth seeing.
There were some opening night flubs: missed/garbled lines, some shaky scenery and some very difficult to understand passages in which several actors speak the same lines in a not-sufficient unison. All of this, I hope, will be ironed out under Jef Awada's able direction. And there were moments of real pleasure, especially in Act 2, when the ensemble's skills really came to the fore.
While I find the Black Cat Theatre a somewhat uncomfortable venue for a show, and the over-long Act 1 of this play a bit much, I’m glad I went. I was not familiar with Mary Zimmerman’s work prior to this and am looking forward to seeing St. Louis Community College – Meramec’s April production of her The Secret in the Wings.
If you like silly high school-like comedy, you’ll like The Arabian Nights, Act 1. If you like very well-done drama, you’ll like Act 2 of the The Arabian Nights. And if you like both, this play might be just right for you - a faithful rendering of Zimmerman's work by St. Louis Shakespeare.