Corrections or additions?

Prepared for the September 13, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.

All rights reserved.

`Odyssey:’ Song in the Air, Play on Stage

At the ripe old age of roughly 3,000 years, Homer’s

epic poem, "The Odyssey," is arguably the greatest, most


armchair adventure of all time. Now Mary Zimmerman has taken Homer’s

12,000 lines of verse — verses that would take more than 12 hours

to recite in one sitting — and put the romance, sea voyage,


seduction, and supernatural doings into a theatrical package lasting

about three. An ingenious adapter and director, Zimmerman has made

it easier for us to envision the wonders of this great oral tale with

her "Odyssey" dramatization that opens at McCarter Theater

on Friday, October 15, with performances continuing to October 1.

A theater artist of growing renown, Zimmerman has made a name for

herself adapting and directing a spectrum of rather daunting classic

literature, including "The Arabian Nights," "The Notebooks

of Leonardo da Vinci," the Chinese Buddhist epic "Journey

to the West," and Ovid’s "Metamorphoses." An assistant

professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, she has

been described by critics as "creative, innovative and a


And "The Odyssey" would appear to offer another alluring


Self-assured, confident, and forthcoming in a phone interview she

sandwiches between her McCarter rehearsals, Zimmerman is quick to

single out the most striking element that attracted her to "The


"Quality," she tells me with an ironic laugh. She confesses

to the allure that "old works" hold for her, works that have

become part of her growing dramatized canon of classic, often


works of literature. She makes no apology for being "attracted

to works that seem impossible to stage." "There’s a lot of

embedded theatricality in them that isn’t released unless they are

staged," she explains.

She feels "The Odyssey" translates well into a theatrical

context. That the theater is bound by very material limitations only

seems to inspire Zimmerman to "find ways to do things in what

is essentially a box." In many ways, Zimmerman shares a kinship

with director-choreographer Martha Clarke and director-adapter Peter

Brooks, each noted for bringing new theatrical dimension to classic

myth, literature, and opera.

"The Odyssey" has been gestating with Zimmerman for most of

her adult life, if not longer. Homer’s story of Odysseus, the hero

of the Trojan War, his wife, the patient and wise Penelope, and their

son, Telemachus, was the second work that Zimmerman ever directed

— and that was back when she was in graduate school 12 years ago.

She subsequently directed a version for the Lookingglass Theater


in Chicago, where she is an ensemble member. Her highly-praised


of "Odyssey," last year at the more institutional Goodman

Theater in Chicago, where she is an artistic associate, leaves no

doubt that Zimmerman, who has been heretofore adamant about directing

her own works, has been with it for a long time.

Well aware of the widespread positive response to


University professor Robert Fagles’ new translations (and


of Homer, Zimmerman extols the earlier translation by Robert


as the "King James" version. More specifically, she says,

this is the version that she grew up with: the version, she recalls,

as having "those evocative pen and ink drawings."

"In a way this production is a translation in itself. It certainly

takes license with the Fitzgerald translation," says Zimmerman,

also mentioning that her version has the approval of the Fitzgerald

estate. In no way, does Zimmerman consider hers as a definitive


just another version.

Because of the fame and familiarity of this poem that has inspired

so many works of art, Zimmerman feels the artist is free to riff on

it, make puns on the basic adventures of Odysseus. That this hero’s

perilous 10-year journey from the wars in Troy to the comfort of his

island home on Ithaca can now be experienced in a little more than

three hours will prove attractive to those who only remember it as

one of their high school assignments.

Like Fagles, who recently remarked that "these poems weren’t meant

as literature or words on a page to be read, but as a song in the

air," Zimmerman concurs on work’s inherently visual qualities.

To address the visual aspects of her production, she works with the

designers, the same ones over and over again. Because she usually

begins work before there is a finished script, she says she often

lets the designer’s imagination come first. She then fits the action

to suit the visual attributes; the reverse of the generally accepted

practice of having a setting fulfill the demands of the script. This,

of course, is less the case with "Odyssey" since the script

is already achieved.

"My version tells the story as much through visual signifiers

as much as it does through language," says Zimmerman. "On

the other hand, it maintains the narrative of the Odyssey by putting

it in the mouth of Odysseus or Athena." She refers to the


"interview" scene between Odysseus and Penelope, in which

she thinks he is an old beggar and she asks for news of her husband.

"It is written so much like a play scene that you can’t believe

it isn’t a classic acting scene that actors use to perform in


she remarks.

Her intention to bring every element of dramatic shape, character,

intimacy, and suspense to Homer’s epic is enhanced by "tons and

tons" of original musical that underscores the dramatic action,

written by Michael Bodeen and Willie Schwarz. There are only two


of actual songs, sung in context. These are enhanced by the use of

unusual non-western instruments.

While Zimmerman has had to omit some adventures and give others


of a glancing treatment, she says all Homer’s incredible metaphors

"are present and simply spoken." She laughs she talks about

the most "radical moments" of the production. But she is not

willing to give away the surprises.

Zimmerman does reveal that she has found a unique way to deal with

the song of the sirens, those beings that men are willing to lose

their lives for, as well as the "primitive shadow play" that

is the adventure with Cyclops. These she describes, without false

modesty, as being "ingenious, as well as being able to delight

the audience."

Zimmerman has created special effects in very simple ways. The play’s

main props are nothing more than 14 chairs. And while film also plays

a part in the underworld, the production is, above all, an exercise

in "let’s pretend," with the help of her set designer Daniel

Ostling, lighting designer T.J. Gerckens, and costume designer Mara


If Zimmerman views the process of adapting and staging as inseparable

parts of her creative process, she also has experience directing other

people’s plays, citing Shakespeare ("Henry VIII" at New York

Shakespeare Festival in the Park) and Tom Stoppard as favorites.


a favorite at the Berkeley and Seattle Rep theaters, Zimmerman says,

"It’s really only the theaters in Chicago that give me the trust

that I need in order to work the way I do. All my original work begins

in Chicago," a city where Zimmerman has won 10 Joseph Jefferson

awards. And while waiting for New York, which has seen "Arabian

Nights" (Manhattan Theater Club), and "da Vinci" (Lincoln

Center "Serious Fun" Festival), to fully appreciate the artist

who received the "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine

T. MacArthur Foundation, it is up to McCarter Theater to provide a

regional platform for Zimmerman’s creative expression.

At present, Zimmerman doesn’t allow theaters to produce

her plays without also having her direct the work. "Someday I

have to let go," she says, "however my plays are too personal,

and without my staging make no sense at all." I am startled to

learn that none of Zimmerman’s scripts have been published.

"They tend to be expensive to produce and they generally have

large casts," says Zimmerman, giving as an example the 21 actors

featured in the "Odyssey," many of whom have worked with


"Christopher Donahue, who plays Odysseus, has done 15 productions

with me over the past 15 years, including the very first school


of `Odyssey,’ in which he played Zeus and Cyclops," she notes.

When I ask Zimmerman if she has any interest in writing plays other

than adaptations, she replies, "I don’t know if I have any


for that." Describing herself as a compulsive reader since


Zimmerman says, "I have lived in these books my whole life, and

doing these plays is an extension of that and a real challenge."

Asked how much knowledge of the poem a viewer needs to enjoy the play,

she immediately answers, "None." She recommends her show


for children ages 10 and up.

A daughter of academia — her father, a physicist and her mother,

an English professor, both at the University of Nebraska —


began studying at Northwestern at age 18, and has earned both her

master’s and doctorate in performance studies there. Northwestern

is also where she currently teaches.

She recently directed the Philip Glass opera "Akhnaten" for

the Boston Lyric and the Chicago Opera, an experience that included

research travel to Egypt. With a future collaboration pending,


expects to see her adaptation of Ovid’s "Metamorphosis,"


by the Second Stage in New York next season.

Eight opening nights in a single year sounds like some kind of record.

But, says Zimmerman, "I have to slow down because I’m also very

devoted to teaching. It seems every time I do a play I get into these

long tedious meetings with Disney and other producers that I know

are a waste of time, and then" (here she laughs heartily), "I

don’t return their calls." For Zimmerman, it’s all just an


— Simon Saltzman

The Odyssey, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Opening for Homer’s action-packed epic, adapted and

directed by Mary Zimmerman. Through October 1. $29 to $42. Friday,

September 15, 8 p.m.

Previous Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments