Ryan Artzberger and Sofia Jean Gomez
in The Arabian Nights
(© Kevin Berne)
Ryan Artzberger and Sofia Jean Gomez
in The Arabian Nights
(© Kevin Berne)
At several points, in Mary Zimmerman's hip and lively adaptation of The Arabian Nights, now premiering at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the layers upon layers of shaggy-dog stories produce a punch drunkenness in the audience. We may have expected an old-world tableau of Egyptian intrigue, but what we witness are winding, dizzying comic yarns within yarns that tell far-fetched tales of a farting man, a randy green grocer with a big cucumber, and a scabby, dribbling, gruesome bride. Yet, the writer and director -- who has made a career of revamping classics, reinventing ancient myths and fables in surprising ways -- once again reminds us of their relevance as she finally stirs us back to present-day Baghdad, with a hint of sirens and flailing bodies.

With its origins in 9th-century Persia, One Thousand and One Nights has been retold and amended over and over in many cultures; but the one constant has been the framing device. Cruel king Shahryar, once betrayed by his wife, ensures fidelity by each night marrying a virgin and killing her at dawn. But his final would-be victim, Scheherazade, plots to save her life through her storytelling arts. By telling tales, night after night, with well-timed cliff-hangers, the word once again proves mightier than the sword, as her stories of love, wisdom, heartbreak, and redemption transform King Shahryar and remind him of his humanity.

Sofia Jean Gomez and Ryan Artzberger are compelling as Shahryar and Scheherazade, but these two actors are actually eclipsed by the throng of hams weaving the witty fables. Noshir Dalal plays a madman who tells of how he was tricked into marrying a disgusting repellent woman and how he was released from his promise by assembling a brigade of deranged dancing, slobbering cretins to pose as his family to his new father-in-law. Allen Gilmore excels at physical comedy in a range of nutty roles, and Evan Zes -- who also stands out in all of his roles -- spins particularly delightful baloney in a woebegone story of his conception on the back of a donkey and his birth to a toothless whore. Ramiz Monsef likewise ad-libs a ridiculous tale, which borrows from the Black Eyed Peas' rap "My Humps."

The visual wit and spectacle of some of Zimmerman's previous spectacles, however, is toned down here. Daniel Ostling's set design is spare but evocative; persian rugs adorn the stage and assorted exotic lamps descend at intervals. Most of the mood is created, instead, by song and chant, dance, and drumming. (The Lookingglass Ensemble and Andre Pluess created the striking composition and sound design.)

Giddy, gross, and far over the top, the most inebriating Arabian tales recall, oddly enough, the mood achieved in the film The Aristocrats, in which stand up comics use a regulated framing device to invent their own winding (and perverse) stories. The humor is as much in the excessiveness as in the content -- and part of the laugh is the endlessness of it all.