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Arabian Nights

Posted by on December 4, 2008

I’ve always loved the story of Scheherazade, who told stories to save her own life. (I guess every writer loves this story.) So I was delighted when Michele agreed to go see The Arabian Nights at the Berkeley Rep with me last night.

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Part of my fascination with these stories is the florid way the characters speak, like in the Western fairy tale about the girl who dropped diamonds and roses from her lips when she spoke. Flowers and flattery.

– O King of Time, what is the purpose of life?

– To cultivate enthusiasm.

I don’t know why I was so surprised that the play conformed to this linguistic style. It was like watching Shakespeare, where the language is initially a barrier until you’re drawn into it by the actors and suddenly you understand it almost effortlessly. So…that was cool.

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Like the stories, the play also includes plenty of singing and dancing. I suppose this is naive of me, but I was impressed that they could find so many actors who could act, sing and dance. (I’m thinking of Star Trek TNG, which hired countless guest stars, almost none of whom could act at all. How are there so many great actors to be found for Berkeley Rep and almost none for a nationally aired TV show?)

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The play, like the stories, is set in a stylized version of Arabia — in the same way that Western fairy tales deal with an imaginary West full of spells and witches — but it deals with real issues too. It particularly addresses the sad and merry gender war, and how women fight it in a society where they have very little public power: through desire, through infidelity, through virtue, and through eloquence, cleverness and wit. By the end, Scheherazade has drawn a picture of a world where the balance of power is not so unequal as it first appeared.

And this is why the end of her own story has always felt so unsatisfying to me. By the end of her thousand and one nights, she’s won the heart of the king and she elects to stay with him as his wife. But why? I’ve never understood it. Before he married Scheherazade, the man has been systematically marrying, deflowering and murdering every virgin in the country until there are literally none left but the daughters of his most trusted advisor. He spends most of his nights with Scheherazade threatening to slit her throat. He is clearly a nutcase, and when he offers her freedom, she should take it. The women in her stories would.

Only once have I read a satisfying end to the tale, in a parody of it written by Craig Shaw Gardner (The Last Arabian Night). As I recall it, at the end, Scheherazade realizes that the handsome guard outside her bedchamber bears a striking resemblance to the king. After she has won the king’s heart and trust with her stories, she and the guard get together and bump him off, then live happily ever after with the guard posing as his master. As an added bonus, the guard is so grateful to Scheherazade for raising his status, he’s pretty much under her thumb for life and she’s in charge. Sounds right to me.

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Tickets to this might make a good Christmas present for someone on your list. It’s especially worth it because the theater is small and comfortable. Michele and I didn’t even have the most expensive seats, yet we found ourselves second-row center. Plus, way more legroom than A.C.T. Great play, great price; but hurry, because performances are selling out.

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