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Dance of the Seven Tales

The leisurely storytelling extravaganza Mirror of the Invisible World is classic Mary Zimmerman.

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MIRROR OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD | GOODMAN THEATRE

WHEN Through 7/29: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

WHERE Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE $20-$68

INFO 312-443-3800

For whom is a story enough? For the wanderers who will tell it--it's where they must find their strange felicity. --Eudora Welty, "Circe"

Mary Zimmerman's wanderings in the art of storytelling have taken forms both strange and familiar, depending on her source. But by now her aesthetic is iconic. Mirror of the Invisible World has all the tight ensemble work, well-placed bits of whimsical stagecraft, and moments of epiphany characteristic of her work. It adds a thoughtful look at cultural unity and a subtle take on gender roles. But the unhurried approach of its stunning, choreographed tableaux, the sort that made her a star nearly two decades ago, stands out even more today. In the context of the breakneck, highly amplified sliced-and-diced classics offered by younger artists such as the House Theatre, Zimmerman's respect for her material is clearer than ever.

Unlike previous Zimmerman works like the riveting Argonautika, produced by Lookingglass last fall, and her legendary swimming-pool staging of Ovid's Metamorphoses (first performed in 1998), Mirror of the Invisible World doesn't rely on the Western canon. First produced in 1997 at the old Goodman Studio Theatre, Zimmerman's adaptation is based on a section of the Haft Paykar, a 12th-century romantic epic by the poet Nizami, who lived in the Persian empire in what is now Azerbaijan. (His nickname was "Mirror of the Invisible World.") The epic, originally titled "Seven Images" or "Seven Beauties," tells of the seven wives of King Bahram, all from a different kingdoms. As each spends a night with him he pleads to be entertained with a story, and each unfolds a strange tale leavened with lessons about love, forgiveness, generosity, and courage. With its Eastern roots and ornate language, the play feels close in spirit (and length) to Zimmerman's Journey to the West, based on a Chinese legend.

The play demands careful listening. The tales told by these variations on Scheherazade have multiple layers of narrative and meaning, particularly the first one, delivered by the Indian princess. In this story a young prince, hungry like King Bahram for the tales of others, embarks on a trip to understand why one of his visitors is always shrouded in black. Here the narrative perspective shifts from the princess to a servant of the prince to the prince himself. As each wife's story concludes, a colored dome on an onstage model of a Persian palace lights up--and since this is the darkest of the tales, the black dome achieves only a faint glow.

Zimmerman's design team, particularly costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, uses the colors to bring a different emotional resonance to each story. The winsome Greek princess (Atley S. Loughridge) recounts the love affair between a slave girl who believes she's doomed to die in childbirth and an Iraqi prince whose horoscope tells him never to love a woman. The bright saffron tones associated with their story, about defying fear, bring sunlight into the dark world of superstition.

Each of the princesses tells a tale from a region other than her own, and since King Bahram's connection with each wife increases, figuratively their different kingdoms are united. The story from the hearty Russian royal (Sofia Jean Gomez) involves a bookish Chinese woman whose deadly devices to keep unworthy suitors at bay include mechanical soldiers who behead those trying to reach her mountain sanctuary. This narrative cross-pollination suggests the intermingling of Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures--whose complexities are often ignored by Westerners. Though Zimmerman runs the risk of making exotica out of these unfamiliar stories about love, she refuses to dumb them down with cute pop-cultural anachronisms, honoring the poetry and mystery behind the legends.

She also knows how to have fun. In the Russian woman's tale the hapless suitors meet their ends behind a backlit screen, where the soldiers' larger-than-life swords neatly slice off the suitors' noggins and leave them staggering in a wash of red light. The final tale, told by the Persian princess, depicts the comic tribulations of a couple whose every attempt at consummating their passion is undone by some ridiculous interruption: a collapsing building foundation, an angry cat (in a departure from grand spectacle, nothing more than a stuffed animal accompanied by fearsome offstage yowling, courtesy of sound designer Michael Bodeen), a mouse that chews through a string and sends a shower of pumpkins down on the lovers' heads. Eventually persistence pays off and they're happily united.

Set in a region often derided by Westerners for patriarchal oppression, this show is an almost entirely female affair. Affable Faran Tahir as King Bahram is the only male actor onstage, while the actresses playing the seven princesses perform the major roles, male and female alike, in each story, subverting male-female conventions and subtly commenting on gender relationships. King Bahram is the passive listener, for example, pleading for vicarious adventure, and the women are the active forces of destiny. All seven handle the material superbly, but Lisa Tejero stands out for her exquisite comic chops, particularly as a know-it-all merchant who comes to an untimely end.

An onstage trio of musicians adds rich texture, and Daniel Ostling's soaring arched set is complemented beautifully by John Culbert's lush lighting, which brings out the finer shades of the color for each story. Those willing to enter the play's world with an open heart, like that of King Bahram, should find many pleasures and some felicitous bits of wisdom.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mirror of the Invisible World photo by Liz Lauren.

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