Recently, a German zoo's plan to host a festival of African culture has caused a flap among those who believe white Germans go too far in "other"-ing nonwhite Germans. As put to the BBC by Noah Sow, founder of a group called Der Braune Mob that monitors race issues in the German media, "There is an urge in Germany to see those who are not white as part of something exotic or romanticised."
It's a salient point. The "black"-labeled sections in German video-rental places don't just stock blaxploitation films, but apparently anything with either a black protagonist or a black sidekick. Nightclubs advertise "black music" nights. Berlin's streets bristle with shops selling Moroccan lamps and Indian textiles; every travel agency is an arrow pointing away from white Europe. While that last could simply mark a desire to get out of the cold and into the warm, the overall impression is that white Germany is fascinated with anything of a duskier hue.
Which is what makes German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig's Arabian Night so interesting. Many other things do as well: the combination of dialogue and internal monologue; the way the five characters barely speak to each other but exist solidly, doggedly within their own skins; the tension from the opening line that never once lets up, keeping the audience alert and curious throughout. It's a fascinating text, and one long inheld breath as performed by the Shotgun Players, the only East Bay company that could pull it off, or would even try.
Franziska Dehke (Christina Kramlich, with a face directly from the silent-movie era) dreams on the couch of a dreary apartment in a block of similarly dreary apartments on a humid Berlin evening. Men buzz around her, all doomed in some way by a curse that may -- or may not -- have been placed on her by a Turkish potentate's favorite wife. Her roommate Fatima runs up and down the stairs. That's the outline, but the story swirls like water through time, space, and fable: Istanbul, the building superintendent's honeymoon twenty years before, a man trapped in a bottle. Arabian Night is one of those rare plays with the power to keep surprising. Although the stories within it seem familiar and certain things seem destined to happen, it's impossible to see how they could. Which is a good thing, especially in this audacious, funny, and occasionally brutal production.
Andrea Weber is a choreographer first, and it shows in what she brings out of her actors, who don't move so much as dance slowly and seamlessly through a series of tableaux. It's a good cast, a strong one, anchored by Shotgun regular Richard Louis James, he of the evocative pause, and filled out with the smoldering Carla Pantoja, a broadly comic Roham Shaikhani, and the rubbery Benjamin Privitt as wistful Peter Karpati.
Weber and her designers use the high, narrow Ashby Playhouse space well. Several long, staggered screens decorated with Melanie Hoffman's projections of water, camels, sand, and windows hang over Franziska's couch. One screen marks the lift, which plays a major role in the story. The set captures the feel of Berliner architecture, the numbing apartment blocks, their units kitted out with IKEA furniture, without having to spell it out; Robert Anderson's lights get the point across. The costuming, while subtle, gets it right: Two of the men are wearing sandals with socks! Daniel Bruno's sound design is generally excellent, especially the ripply staticky music at the beginning, although using Peter Gabriel's Passion to mark a "Middle Eastern" mood is a tad overdone.
Which may be the point. Because the underlying question remains: Is Schimmelpfennig romanticizing Arabic culture, or is he poking at those who do? His Arabian Night could be taken either way -- which doesn't lessen the pleasure and surprise of this elegant and gutsy play.
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