Arabian Night is an erotic dream play from a young Berlin playwright, elegantly directed, designed, and lit by Del Surjik in a richly theatrical co-production from Pi and Axis Theatres. The five actors all do good work and the script is imaginatively surreal.
So why was I so underwhelmed? In the end, for me, things have to add up somehow, and the pieces of this puzzle didn’t. In lieu of intellectual clarity, I’ll settle for being aesthetically dazzled. But while a few moments in this show excited me, and more mildly amused and/or cerebrally interested me, just as many I found simply annoying.
The setting is an apartment building whose caretaker, Hans (Kevin Williamson in an unnecessary German accent), notices that no water is getting above the 7th floor, but the sound of rushing water is everywhere in the building. Fatima (Yasmin Abidi) shares a 7th floor apartment with Franziska (Sasa Brown), who is in the habit of coming home from work, forgetting everything that happened to her that day, and falling asleep half-naked on the couch. Fatima’s boyfriend Kahlil (Craig Veroni) is coming to visit her. Peter (Peter Wilson), from a building across the way, sees Franziska showering and is powerfully drawn to her apartment.
None of the characters speak to each other. They all speak to the audience, describing what they and the others are doing, often in the most banal terms: “She turns away and then turns back to face me again… The elevator door opens.” Quickly, the show develops into an elaborate counterpoint of voices and movement, as Kahlil gets stuck in the elevator, Fatima descends the stairs and then gets locked outside, Peter pursues Franziska, and Franzisca and Hans begin to dream different but equally exotic dreams.
At a certain point Franziska gets completely naked, Hans dreams his way into some kind of Arabian desert, Peter gets stuck inside a brandy bottle, and Fatima thinks she catches her boyfriend doing it with her naked roommate.
Some characters spend an awful lot of time miming walking up and down interminable flights of stairs.
While I appreciated the Orientalist dreamscape, sometimes beautifully evoked by Surjik’s lighting, his sets of diaphanous curtains, and Robbie Parker’s sound design, all combined with the characters’ dream narratives, I was never transported.
The show might mean more in the context of contemporary Germany’s particular immigration issues and demographic dynamics, especially with regard to its large Turkish communities. Though Canada certainly has similar kinds of tensions, none of this resonated for me at the cultural level.