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