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SF Chronicle, Saturday June 4, 2005

Farce meets Freud in 'Arabian Night'

-- by Robert Hurwitt


Fairy tales don't come true in "Arabian Night," the oddly engrossing play that opened Thursday at the Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. Sure, Sleeping Beauty gets quite a workout, with more than one prospect drawn to those somnolent lips. But she and they -- and everybody else -- may be figments of an enchanting, oddly logical fever dream. And the question of who is dreaming what or whom adds to the creative confusion.

The brothers Grimm and "The Arabian Nights" meet Kafka, Strindberg, madcap farce and more, and everybody crashes headlong into Freud, in Roland Schimmelpfennig's cleverly fantastical drama. The up-and-coming young German playwright's "Night" premiered in Berlin in 2001. Shotgun's production is both the writer's local debut and the American premiere of David Tushingham's crisp, lively English translation, which played London in 2002.

It's a pretty thoroughly captivating construction, funny, creepy and tantalizingly convoluted in both the story it tells and its manner of telling it. It's provocative, too, not only in the sense of jump-starting the mind in many directions but also in its use of nudity, simulated sex (without nudity) and such topics as voyeurism, kidnapping, murder and incest -- not to mention what it must feel like to be a genie trapped in a bottle in a room with an attractive naked woman.

Director Andrea Weber and a very strong Shotgun cast handle the text with a beguilingly stylized naturalism that makes the difficult look easy. The characters speak mostly in first-person narratives, expressing their thoughts and describing their actions with occasional bursts into sparse fragments of dialogue. The present keeps slipping into dreams and/or memories, transporting the disconnected residents of an anonymous apartment building somewhere in Europe to Istanbul or a sheikh's harem in a desert.

The multiple-monologue format makes each speaker the protagonist of the moment, though two interlocking mysteries form the narrative core. Hans Lomeier, the building's old handyman -- played to cagily distracted, comically indecisive perfection by Richard Louis James -- is consumed with the problem of why there's no water in the building's top floors. Not to mention the malfunctioning elevator and the dripping and ghostly singing noises (excellent sound effects by Daniel Bruno) he hears all over.

Hans heads for the seventh floor, where the water seems to disappear in the apartment of two women. Fatima, first seen trying to open her (invisible) door with (imaginary) keys while laden with (unseen) grocery bags -- all deftly mimed by a solidly grounded Carla Pantoja -- is troubled by another mystery. Why does her roommate, Franziska (a captivating Christina Kramlich) forget her entire day when she returns home from work and, except for waking to take a long shower, sleep deeply from late afternoon until it's time to go to work in the morning?

Franziska's somnolence is of use to Fatima, however, for her nightly trysts with Khalil (a wonderfully eager, blithely innocent Roham Shaikhani). As he heads for the apartment, so does Peter (played with poignantly comic ingenuousness by Benjamin Privitt), a resident of the next apartment building, drawn by what he's seen of Franziska in the shower (in Schimmelpfennig's sly take on voyeurism, Peter has seen much less than the audience has).

Soon, by almost imperceptibly crafty degrees, "Night" becomes a farce of Marx Brothers complexity, with all kinds of missed connections as everybody races up and down the stairs or gets stuck in the elevator. As Franziska wanders wide-eyed in her fever dreams (Melanie Hoffman's inventive projected images upholstering the multilevel, uncredited set) and Hans bickers with his long-departed wife (James masterfully depicting both parts), the farcical chases take on more ominous, suspenseful overtones.

A woman finds her lover entangled in her nude roommate's arms. A man gets swept up in a vortex and another by a succession of sexually ravenous women. More than one life is zanily but desperately at stake as all the author's cleverly planted invisible props -- Fatima's keys, a brandy bottle, the water -- add up with almost mathematical inexorability.

Schimmelpfennig could develop his characters and situations in more depth than he has in this extended one-act. Weber, best known as a choreographer, keeps the acting at a well-integrated, slyly self-aware level and builds the suspense by careful degrees, but holds back a bit when the story seems to call for multiple layers of activity. Such cavils aside, though, this intensely enjoyable fever dream is a "Night" to remember.




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