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On Stage: Mary Zimmerman's blatantly artifical Odyssey

Insights into the artistic development of a now-famous theater creator and director.

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"I had this moment onstage a few years ago when I was supposed to be witnessing someone's death," says Mary Zimmerman. "There we were, all laced up in our corsets, our hair sprayed back, all that. We were trying so hard to be upset about this man's death. And I suddenly realized that it was just so fake. Without being art, without being artificial. It was nothing but effort. At that moment I thought to myself, 'I will never be in another play again.' And I haven't."

Zimmerman may have given up on acting, but she has not given up on the theater. In the three years since her moment of "supreme self-consciousness" onstage, she has created five original and highly personal theater pieces, all of which communicate through, in her words, "behavior and composition" rather than the traditional character and plot. Her first piece was Godiva, which was based on the various legends about Lady Godiva and premiered at Northwestern University in 1987. Later she did a quasi-mystery adventure, The Mystery of the Fourth Wall, that was presented at San Francisco's EXITheater last summer. Her latest, mammoth project, now in rehearsal at Lookingglass Theatre, is a multimedia adaptation of Homer's Odyssey. In all her pieces Zimmerman's theatrical language is refreshingly honest, albeit highly poetic and elusive.

"I always hate it when there are about eight actors onstage," she says with a laugh, "milling about, trying to make a lot of noise, trying to be 'a crowd.' Clearly there is far more of a crowd in the audience than there is onstage. So no one's fooled."

To avoid this problem, Zimmerman simply admits when things are fake. The Odyssey, she explains, is so full of superhuman passions and adventures and creatures that to try to portray them realistically is impossible. Where Homer spends 43 pages detailing Odysseus's brutal slaughter of Penelope's suitors, Zimmerman simply allows sand to fall delicately on her actors' heads as they gradually move from standing positions to lying on the floor. The modesty of the gesture makes the moment almost too horrible to watch. "By making it so blatantly artificial," she explains, "the idea of the scene becomes present. And the scene becomes more moving because it's more distanced."

But why spend so much time and energy and money staging a text that was written more than three millennia ago and that most people learned to hate in high school? "My first encounter with The Odyssey was when I was five," Zimmerman says. "I was living in England, because my dad was on some kind of fellowship. And every afternoon the teacher would read The Odyssey to us. I think I must have felt, without consciously articulating it, that like Odysseus, I was a stranger in a strange land."

The Odyssey remained vital in Zimmerman's imagination for years, and she even did a series of drawings based on the story when she was 11. Then last summer she did a preliminary production of the work for Northwestern's Summer Fiction program. Later she rediscovered her old drawings, which she found detailed some of the exact gestures she had used in the production.

"The structure is so enduring, and so much of the story is still present in our culture," she says. "There's even a television commercial for a phone company called 'The Siren's Song.' It show these gauze-clad women calling you away to use another phone service."

The Lookingglass Theatre Company, after seeing Zimmerman's Northwestern production, decided to produce the work professionally. "She's very drawn to presenting a story that is 3,000 years old, making it important and relevant and present," says Andy White, a member of the company. "And that's also something the Lookingglass is interested in."

Zimmerman's highly formal theatrical language couldn't be more at odds with the style of Lookingglass, a group of 14 former Northwestern students who perform, says White, "with a sort of gung-ho, no-holds-barred acting style." Their productions—an original adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, White's Of One Blood, and Jonathan Moore's Treatment—are marked by an urgency and passion that often takes precedence over the kind of formal concerns central to Zimmerman's work. "The method you use as an artist is a faith," says Zimmerman. "And traditionally they and I have gone to different churches."

White plays Telemachus in the production. "Sometimes in rehearsal I feel like I'm simply being moved around the stage. I'm used to being allowed to discover where I should be standing. But paradoxically her method is in a way liberating, because her sense of composition takes some of the pressure off of the actor. She's working on juxtaposing images and gestures which convey meaning in and of themselves, so that the actor no longer has to bear that burden solely. He is part of something larger."

Lookingglass is also trying out a new space. After losing its old place at 13th and Wabash due to conflicts with the management, the company has rented Chicago Filmmakers. Not only is the space one of the few in town that could hold this production, but it's perfect for the several original films by Zimmerman and Jenni Sioux Hopkins that are used to expand on the play's themes and images. Zimmerman no longer has to chase down exactly the right projector with exactly the right-size lens, as she had to for a previous production that used film.

The Odyssey will be presented in two parts at Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont. The final preview will be Saturday, with part one at 1 PM and part two at 3:30. The show opens April 19 and runs through June 10, with the following schedule: Thursdays, part one at 8 PM; Fridays, part two at 8; Saturdays, part one at 1 and part two at 3:30; Sundays, part one at 4 and part two at 7:30. Tickets are $10, $15 for both parts on Saturdays and Sundays. 281-0924.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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