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Hidden Meanings

December 10, 2008

Ancient cultures resurrected in Berkeley Rep's latest.

One of the best things about attending the Afghanistan exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is the story behind its inception. It begins in 1977, with Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi’s discovery of a priceless cache of antique Afghan gold. 

Afghanistan fell into political turmoil soon after Sarianidi's find and the archaeologist quickly hid his booty before the Civil War began. When the Taliban came to power in the 1980s causing the destruction of much of the country's infrastructure and cultural sites (including the National Museum in Kabul) many experts came to believe that the Bactrian Gold, as the cache was dubbed, had been lost forever.

Then, in 2003, president Hamid Karzai announced that the treasure had been unearthed in unmarked crates in a Kabul bank vault. A group of fearless conservationists known as "key holders" had secreted the hoard away during Afghanistan’s years of upheaval.
 Inspired by Sarianidi’s story, a National Geographic archeologist led a campaign to get the boxes opened. Following the careful inventory of some 33,000 objects, the Afghan government agreed to put some of the artifacts on display.

Like the story of the Bactrian Gold, Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights is all about the power of riveting narratives to bring the hidden to light and resuscitate long-dormant truths in society. The lauded, Chicago-based director’s visually and intellectually captivating theatrical retelling of yarns from the ancient Middle Eastern story cycle also popularly known as The Thousand and One Nights reveals a deep connection between a civilization and its heritage, no matter how buried beneath the sands of war-torn time that cultural legacy might be. However, as universal as Zimmerman’s approach to her material appears on the surface, its political subtext feels passé. The Afghanistan exhibition tells a timelier story in comparison.

Concealment is an on-running theme throughout Zimmerman’s production. It’s there in the main plot concerning the ruthless King Shahryar, who, in revenge at having caught his wife in the arms of another man, vows to murder every virgin in the land. But the wily Scheherezade manages to staunch the King’s bloodlust by telling him a series of incredible stories that distract him from killing her. Eventually Scheherezade helps the King to rediscover his buried compassion. “You have lifted the veil from my heart,” Shahryar declares towards the end.

Stories in the production are often hidden within stories. For example, within Scheherezade’s spinning of a sprawling, comic yarn about a gullible court jester’s marriage to a tricksy, philandering woman, three characters tell their own tall tales. A pastry cook recounts a moral fable about a poor man who goes to Cairo in search of wealth only to discover his fortune buried in his garden at home; a butcher narrates a thoughtful anecdote about a benign sheikh whose clemency in matters of love inspires generosity in others; and a grocer’s absurd narrative focuses on the mysterious contents of a little drawstring bag.

With the help of 15 versatile ensemble performers who match vivid characterizations with flamboyant musical, dancing, improvisational comedy and – crucially – storytelling skills, Zimmerman creates a bustling, multi-layered world on stage. Actors morph seamlessly from one character to the next, at times clubbing together to create boats, camels and other forms with physical dexterity. The identity of every performer changes so often during the course of one tale, that it’s easier to think of each actor as a nest of Russian dolls, revealing a new persona with the removal of each layer. By the end of the play, for example, Shahryar isn’t just a man on a murderous mission. By making other characters’ echo the King’s words and shadow his physical actions throughout the story cycle, Zimmerman deftly suggests that parts of the King’s personality lie buried within countless other archetypes.

The mise-en-scène takes this idea further. At the start of the show, a single uncovered light bulb hangs starkly over a bulky, white-sheet covered pile of hidden objects. The cast comes on stage and removes this dull outer layer to reveal a head-spinning array of colorful Persian rugs, throw cushions and low-wooden tables. Meanwhile, the stark bulb gives way to a canopy of warmly-lit hanging lanterns. Costumes sometimes serve to hide a character’s true identity. For example, in one story, a sensual, black burkha-clad female dancer beguiles a self-important merchant into marriage. Even when she removes her veil, the dancer manages to keep her identity and intentions secret. Sound also serves to create hidden strata of meaning. A scene in which all the performers simultaneously act out dozens of stories from the Arabian Nights cannon creates a vocal cacophony. As with the costumes, props, and other scenic elements, the densely layered use of sound highlights the idea that truth and beauty are more likely to be found hidden deep within a culture than at its surface.

Zimmerman first created The Arabian Nights in 1992 in the shadow of the first Gulf War. Seeing a recurring theme in the cycle of hidden treasure whose unearthing brings great wealth but ultimate disaster, the director – as she has explained in interviews – aimed to convey a sense of the richness, dynamism and eloquence of Middle Eastern culture while also subtly hinting at the destruction wreaked by conflict in recent decades.

Today, however, the irony of a line like “Baghdad, City of Peace and Poets” doesn’t feel quite so poignant as it must have seemed in the early 1990s. The destruction of cities like Baghdad (and, for that matter, Kabul) has been so complete in the intervening years, that we’ve gone way beyond hinting at the possibility of devastation. What matters now is pulling these bomb-shelled cultures out of the rubble and restoring the stories to their former glory. That’s what the Afghanistan exhibition is about. Minus the tired and, at this point, irrelevant political subtext, that’s what The Arabian Nights is about too.



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