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Arabian Night

Roland Schimmelpfennig's play is surreal, insubstantial, and oddly entertaining. logo
Jicky Schnee, Piter Marek and Roxanna Hope
in Arabian Night
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Surreal and oddly entertaining, Roland Schimmelpfennig's Arabian Night is a somewhat insubstantial 65-minute work that is aptly billed as "an erotic urban fantasy." The majority of the play takes place in a modern-day apartment building in an unnamed Western European or American city. (The play was originally written in German, and is nicely translated here by David Tushingham.) However, as its title indicates, it also incorporates a vision of an Arab land that has more in common with what might be found in one of Scheherazade's 1001 tales than with any kind of real-world locale. It's the quintessential Orient of mystery, where girls are kidnapped to become part of a sheik's harem, curses have disastrous consequences, and magic abounds.

As the play begins, building superintendent Hans Lomeier (Stelio Savante) is trying to solve the mystery of why the building's water supply is rushing through the walls and disappearing on the seventh floor. He checks on the apartment of blonde beauty Franziska (Jicky Schnee) and her Arab roommate Fatima (Roxanna Hope), but leaves quickly when he sees that Franziska is not exactly dressed to receive visitors. She follows a very specific routine after her work day that includes undressing, taking a shower, and falling quickly asleep on the sofa. While that may not sound terribly unconventional, it's soon revealed that her tendency towards slumber coupled with her inability to remember what she's done during the day are part of a curse that was once laid upon her.

Added in to the mix are Fatima's boyfriend Kalil (Piter Marek) and a peeping tom neighbor named Peter (Brandon Miller), who also make their way to the girls' apartment during the night and meet unexpected fates when they get drawn into the curse that afflicts Franziska. As the play progresses, the action becomes more nightmarish -- one character gets trapped in a brandy bottle, another is transported into the desert, and still another is forced into sexual encounters with a succession of women who howl like wolves when he leaves them.

The majority of the show is narrated by the various characters, who speak their thoughts directly to the audience. However, it never feels overly talky, because director Trip Cullman keeps the intensity of the action at an oftentimes frantic level. He takes full advantage of Louisa Thompson's industrial-looking multi-platform set to have the actors move all across the stage as they become stuck in elevators, get trapped outside buildings, and enter into mysterious tents in the desert. Lenore Doxsee's lighting design is nothing short of magical, especially when she projects light through a clear glass segment of the stage floor to eerie effect.

The ensemble cast is slightly uneven. Savante speaks the majority of his narrative lines in a rather flat manner, particularly when Hans is supposedly quoting other characters (his ex-wife, for example, or people he meets in what may or may not be a dream). However, he's much better when interacting with the other actors, particularly Schnee. Her Franziska is both compelling and weirdly ethereal, providing the perfect center around which the entire play revolves. In contrast, Hope is much more earthy, as well as a bit strident. Marek and Miller have a lot of fun with the wacky situations their characters find themselves in, and are both well suited to providing the play's comic relief.

Arabian Night tends to rely primarily on atmosphere, with very little in the way of complex character development. Its uncomplicated usage of Orientalist clichés is also something of a drawback. While this is undoubtedly a slight play, it still has both charm and appeal.

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