Justin Young, left, Frank Episale and Ryan Burbank star in "Arabian Night" at Ernst Lab Theatre.

Surreal ‘Arabian Night’
crosses cultural barriers

"The Twilight Zone" was an unusual and popular television show of the late 1950s and early 1960s, putting its characters into a surreal or unpredictable situation which the audience usually observed with the detachment of researchers studying lab rats. Roland Schimmelpfennig's "Arabian Night," playing in the University of Hawaii-Manoa Ernst Lab Theatre this weekend, is written in that tradition.

"Arabian Night"

Presented by the University of Hawaii-Manoa Department of Theatre and Dance, continues at 11 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at Ernst Lab Theatre. Tickets are $8; $7 for seniors, military, students, faculty and staff; $3 for UH-Manoa students. Call 956-7655.

Schimmelpfennig is a contemporary German. The translation is in "British English." But the story transcends culture and could be set almost anywhere high-rise apartments exist.

Hans Lomeier, an apartment maintenance man, hears water running between the walls of the building and worries about an undependable elevator. A voyeur seeks out the woman he has watched in her shower. Two lovers anticipate a twilight rendezvous. A lab technician puzzles over her lack of memory.

Schimmelpfennig's characters share their thoughts with the audience in real time, describing their perspectives and opinions of the others while engaging in conversations with them.

The titular "night" opens with a series of mundane events. The maintenance man tries to figure out why the top levels of the building have no water, one of the women struggles to open the door of her apartment while burdened with several bags of groceries, and so on. The action slips and slides into a surrealistic alternative universe in which "reality" changes from one moment to the next.

A man gets trapped in the elevator. A woman is locked outside the building. The maintenance man is whisked to the Arabian desert and then to Istanbul. Kissing a sleeping, nearly nude woman turns out to be very bad idea! And where did those wolves come from?

If this Lab Theatre production were being directed by Troy M. Apostol or UHM theater program alumnus Taurie Kinoshita, it is quite likely that the nudity Schimmelpfennig's characters mention so frequently would not be left to the imagination. Even so, Ryan Burbank (Franziska) succeeds in becoming the focal point of the action with her well-rounded and multilayered performance as a mysterious woman.

Phyllis Wong (Fatima) is pert and animated as the innocent roommate hard put to deal with Franziska's eccentricities. Justin Young (not the well-known recording artist), who plays Peter, gives the show its strongest moments of dark comedy as the voyeur.

Frank Episale (Hans Lomeier) provides a strong foundation as a lonely widower who finds the world doubling in on him. Robert Wylie (Kalil) is stiff but satisfactory as Fatima's boyfriend.

Any ethnic or political subtexts in Schimmelpfennig's original German script are lost in translation.

A chair, strips of blue cloth, and white pieces of paper suffice to suggest the setting. Burbank's use of the chair during her "shower" scene and in subsequent scenes with the men gives the well-paced one-act show most of its visual impact.

A post-show discussion will follow tomorrow's performance. Anyone interested in director Peter Ruocco's approach to Schimmelpfennig's enigmatic contemporary fantasy will almost certainly find it worth staying for.

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