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Oakland Tribune, June 5, 2005


Shotgun offers dizzying 'Arabian Night'



FIRST, A WORD about the Ashby Stage, the splendid theater that is home to Berkeley's Shotgun Players.

For most of its existence, Shotgun has been an itinerant theater company performing in churches, parks, parking lots and various spaces — some good, some not.

Plans for theaters came and went, but then Transparent Theater, which had converted an old church near the Ashby BART station into a theater, went out of business.

It has been nearly a year since Shotgun took over the space — a near-perfect balance of steeply raked auditorium and deep, versatile stage — re-christened it the Ashby Stage and instantly joined the ranks of grown-up theater companies.

All of this is relevant to Shotgun's new show, "Arabian Night," because without a space to call home, Shotgun probably would not have undertaken such a bizarre, brain-twisting show.

To pull off a dream (or nightmare) play such as this requires a certain confidence that you can a) meet the physical requirements of the show and b) ensure that your audience will stick with you through the experiment.

Shotgun can now meet and exceed those requirements.

There are plays a lot weirder than Roland Schimmelpfennig's "Arabian Night" (translated from German by David Tushingham), but not by much.

The delightful thing about director Andrea Weber's highly physical, deftly paced 75-minute production is that she never excludes the audience. There's humor in the script that other directors might ignore in favor of the more abstract aspects, and the laughs help draw us in and keep us interested, even as the play fractures into freaky fantasy.

Or does it? That's the thing. We're taken from a very real world — an urban apartment building on the hottest night of the year — into a sort of "Alice in Wonderland" warp where a man shrinks and finds himself trapped in a bottle of brandy, a beheaded woman's curse becomes reality and desert sands begin blowing through the hallways.

The set is a simple jumble of platforms and long swaths of fabric that capture the digital projections by Melanie Hofmann. With relative ease, the stage can be a stairwell, an apartment, a flooded river or a sheik's palace. Robert Ted Anderson's lights and Daniel Bruno's sound design also prove invaluable in setting the tone and conveying a sense of place and twisted time.

Schimmelpfennig has a talent for depicting desperation and anxiety. His five characters are often trapped and isolated. Before things get too wild, the situations are ordinary: a man (Roham Shaikhani) excited to see his girlfriend gets trapped in a rickety elevator. A woman (Carla Pantoja) worried about what has happened to her boyfriend gets locked out of the building.

But then phantom weirdness begins creeping through the corridors.

The building's superintendent (Richard Louis James) can't figure out why there's no water above the seventh floor. Perhaps it has something to do with the woman (Christina Kramlich) in 732. She's asleep on the couch, wrapped in only a towel, and the door to her apartment is open. That means anyone, like the guy (Benjamin Privitt) who glimpsed her through a window, can just wander in and kiss her. The sleeping woman, who ends up spending a fair amount of the play naked, might be dreaming this whole scenario.

That might explain the shrunken man in the bottle. Or not. Explanations aren't really all that necessary here because Weber's cast is astute enough to keep us interested even if we don't know what's actually going on.

As can happen in this kind of show, the novelty and the interest level begin to wear thin after about an hour, but here at least, it's a momentary lull.

There's an amazing scene involving the fate of the man in the bottle, which is quite extraordinary when you think about it. The bottle is invisible, the full-size actor playing the miniature man is standing to the side of the stage only pretending to be teeny-tiny, and yet with each wave of the invisible bottle, the audience oohs and ahhs as if the man were really in peril. That's the magic of theater: making the weird matter in minor ways. Shotgun's "Arabian Nights" is bursting with just that kind of magic.

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