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The Audience Is Moved

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Eleven Rooms of Proust

About Face Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre Company

By Jack Helbig

Chicago is a city of unusual performance spaces but not, by and large, of unusual performances. Over the years I've seen theater in garages, restaurant basements, living rooms, storage buildings, abandoned factories, former synagogues, churches, and the back rooms of bookstores. But no matter how eccentric or unlikely the space, it's usually been modified to resemble the standard configuration of Western theater--audience here, performers there, and a stage or platform to ensure that never the twain shall meet. Even when the theater is too poor or the space too small to physically change it, the company stages the work as if it were on a proscenium anyway.

Court Theatre's old space, for example, was a student lounge at the University of Chicago's Reynolds Club. Like Writers' Theatre Chicago today, that space was so small that if you were in the front rows you were for all practical purposes onstage. But even then the folks at Court presented their classic and contemporary, mostly British and Irish plays as if they were working with a traditional raised platform.

What happens when a theater director approaches an unusual space with a performance artist's eye? Well, Eleven Rooms of Proust happens. This audacious, eccentric, graceful work--Mary Zimmerman's latest brainchild--could never be revived intact at the Goodman. Using an empty warehouse on Ravenswood, she stages 11 scenes from Marcel Proust's multivolume novel Remembrance of Things Past. But where most theater companies would have taken over one corner of the cavernous building and added chairs, a stage, and some curtains, Zimmerman and company take over all three stories and present each selection in a different part of the building. And in a strange twist, the city rewarded their efforts by briefly closing down the show.

Clearly the locations have been carefully chosen to suit the story. An early scene from "Swann's Way" in which the narrator as a young boy anxiously awaits his mother's good-night kiss is staged in what might have been a loading dock, with the child's bedroom comfortably set inside the building and the balcony where his mother and Monsieur Swann stand talking--to the child's consternation--on the lip of the dock area. Other scenes are staged in open spaces on the first floor, in smaller spaces on the second and third floors, and even in a very small storage room. In this scene the narrator watches his beloved Albertine as she sleeps; in true Proustian fashion, he tells us everything he feels and sees and thinks as he watches the girl turn, raise a hand to her hair, sigh--and our view is equally intimate.

Ultimately Eleven Rooms of Proust more closely resembles a trip through a haunted house than a traditional play, an association that's apt given that Proust's opus is very much about people haunted by their pasts. Of course the point here is not to scare the hell out of people but to give Zimmerman's imagination free rein--and this 65-minute show does display the full spectrum of her art. There are scenes of surpassing beauty, moments when the movement and the costumes and the text all come together. At other, equally fascinating times Zimmerman the professor prods our brains with voice-over "seminar" discussions of love and desire, memory and art, in Remembrance of Things Past.

In one of the evening's more interesting scenes Zimmerman touches on the idea--fully explored in Edmund White's short biography Marcel Proust--that this open but conflicted homosexual disguised his affairs with men as affairs with women in the book. Albertine in particular might have been more correctly called Albert. Zimmerman gently elucidates the nature of homosexuality in Parisian society at the time and then moves on. Clearly she doesn't intend this to be a complete study of Proust or his epic work: the 11 scenes she's lifted from the book, most of them connected to Swann's complicated affair with the beautiful, promiscuous showgirl Odette, are meant to offer only a quick sampling of the masterpiece.

In fact what makes this work amazing is the way Zimmerman meets the two monstrous challenges she's set herself: creating a short, coherent adaptation of Proust's monument and finding a way to stage it in an empty three-story building. Two years ago Zimmerman, About Face, and Lookingglass put on a workshop version of the play in the Berger Park mansion on North Sheridan. I didn't see that production, but a mansion seems too polished a space for this piece--it's polished enough as it is. If Zimmerman hadn't become a director, she might have been a high-gloss fashion photographer. With its worn floors and rough gray support girders, this empty old warehouse provides just the right contrast to Zimmerman's actors, whose movements are carefully choreographed and whose costumes are perfectly tailored. The warehouse setting also underscores the idea that Proust's novel is itself a kind of warehouse, packed tight with all the brilliant ephemera of life.

Yet it seems that this innovative use of an otherwise idle space could not go unpunished. The day after the show opened it was shut down by the city because exit signs were not brightly enough illuminated. The company scrambled to fix things and was allowed to reopen the show several days later; only two performances had to be canceled.

But the experience is a reminder of how much the city is at odds with itself. It's spent millions to create a theater district downtown, opening up two white elephants (or, to be fair to the enterprising folks at Fox Theatricals, a gray elephant and a white one) that mainly feature touring shows. But when it comes to indigenous companies the city is often hostile and repressive. Laws written for theaters with 2,000 seats, a large lobby, and a huge backstage area are applied to 40-seat houses with little in the way of a backstage or lobby.

Now even the well-connected Zimmerman, About Face, and Lookingglass have gotten caught in the city's web of regulations. Happily, they managed to extricate themselves quickly. But the fact that they had to struggle at all speaks volumes. As does the fact that a city with so many different kinds of performance spaces seldom uses them innovatively or steps beyond the boundaries of audience here, actors there.

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

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