When director/adaptor Mary Zimmerman works with the scenic designer Daniel Ostling on one of the numerous projects on which they have collaborated, people often tell them that their bickering sounds like they are an old married couple.
They’re not married but their verbal and non-verbal shorthand has certainly grown during the last 12 years that they have been working together. Their latest collaboration, Zimmerman’s "Argonautika," is in previews at McCarter Theater and opens on Friday, March 21. The production comes to Princeton having already traveled from Berkley Rep in California to the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. This is a co-production of the three theaters.
Ostling and Zimmerman first worked together in 1996, when Ostling was an MFA student at Northwestern University, on a developmental piece called "Six Myths," which went on to become the 2002 Tony award-winning play "Metamorphosis." "It was a good relationship from the start," says Ostling in a telephone interview.
"Argonautika" had its genesis in Zimmerman’s fertile imagination while she was watching a play at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. She had no involvement with the play and was just watching, she says. "They were performing on a bare
floor, and I just had an image in my mind of a lot of little boats being pulled across that floor, a miniature flotilla." At the time Lookingglass, where Zimmerman has developed a number of her plays, had asked her to write a new work. And again she was thinking back into what she terms the "familiar territory" of Greek myths.
The child of two University of Nebraska professors – her father taught physics and her mother English – Zimmerman read vociferously as a child so she has a storehouse of tales stashed away in her memory. "Argonautika" tells the story about the heroic Jason and the Argonauts sailing through numerous perils, including the harpies and the rocks that clash together to smash passing ships, to Colchis, where he is to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
In Colchis he meets Medea. Zimmerman reminds me that the gods had Aphrodite shoot an arrow through Medea’s chest to make her fall in love with Jason. "I had this image quite literalized in my mind: that Medea would have the arrow through
her chest throughout the whole show." Set designer Ostling also remembers this as an early image the two of them discussed, and says, "Mary had a clear idea of the progression of that. It was sweet and romantic at first, and then as the
play proceeds, Medea’s white dress gets more and more sopped with blood as she bleeds. It’s a haunting image." Zimmerman mentions that someone has said that the subtitle for "Argonautika" should be "Medea: How She Got That Way."
She finds it interesting to look at Jason as a hero, as he is anything but a noble character. "I think this epic is a kind of warning about heroes, the idea that foreign military intervention and adventure make a hero. I was surprised by
the political relevance today. That was totally unplanned on my part. Jason accomplishes his mission. Technically, he wins the battle and gets the golden fleece, but what they bring back is all kinds of blood and destruction. It’s mission accomplished, but at what cost?"
Then, there is Jason’s questionable fidelity. "Repeatedly, he had vowed to Medea that he would be true to her. He had asked her to make big sacrifices: betray her country and her father. Yet in the end, when he has an opportunity to be a
king by marrying someone else, he takes it. He’s not a man of his word," Zimmerman says.
When Zimmerman was in Princeton in 2005 for her production of "The Secret in the Wings," (U.S. 1, January 12, 2005) which was also designed by Ostring, she talked about the process she goes through to development an adaptation. She says
that she and the cast sit in a circle and read from the text, the original source. Rehearsals begin with no script. "I wrote the script every day (at Lookingglass) when we weren’t rehearsing. I tend to write in the middle of the night. Go to bed early, wake up at two or three in the morning, and write for a few hours, then sleep a bit more. Get up and go to rehearsal." The length of the rehearsal period, she says, is the same as it would be for a play with a script already written – four weeks. "It’s always been this crazy, very intense time for me." It does sound daunting, and I ask how she does it. "I live alone, and I don’t have any children." The secret, she says, is her total emersion in whatever play she is working on, in which she alternates between "the playful frenzy of rehearsals and writing at home in the dark, quiet moments in the morning – a balance between the active and the contemplative."
For the first time, Zimmerman has brought a puppeteer/ artist, Michael Montenegro, into the creative mix. "This felt different and new. In the past I’ve just relied on pretending or being ingenious." Though she says that while the production is by no means dominated by the puppets, they make appearances at what she terms "key" moments.
Ostling is brought into the process even before rehearsals begin. He says that the economics of theater demand that the set get started before the rehearsal period. "It’s an exciting position for a set designer. She writes for a very
specific set. My work is really informing the very play itself." While Zimmerman provides the genesis, both she and Ostling do research and read and reread the original text. "Mary does little drawings we always save because they are quite
Ostling earned his MFA in 1996 from Northwestern, then taught at Loyola University in Chicago for seven years. Five years ago, he joined the performance studies department at Northwestern, where Zimmerman teaches in the theater department.
Ostling doesn’t design exclusively for Zimmerman; New York theatergoers may have seen his sets for "Durango" at the Public Theatre or for "The Pain and the Itch" at Playwrights Horizons. He also designed the sets for "Lookingglass Alice,"
which played at the McCarter last year.
He and Zimmerman have taught some courses together as a team at Northwestern. "She’s about the smartest woman I know," he says, adding that it’s been a real gift to him to have met her and forged that relationship. "She is a dear friend.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done together. When I think back about moments that have meant a lot to me, many are connected to our work together." He even designed her home in Maine after she bought some property there.
Building mythic adaptations has become a comfort zone for Zimmerman since that first major success with "Metamorphosis." The Lookingglass Theatre and its resident company is a home base for her but she also has close ties to Chicago’s
Goodman Theatre, where she is an artistic associate. She says that working on "Argonautika" surprised her by being a more "easeful" development process. "There wasn’t a lot of struggle as there usually has been." This she feels may be the result of the structure of the source material, which divided itself very naturally into two acts.
Zimmerman, who is currently looking for an apartment to serve as a pied-a-terre for when she is doing directing stints in the city, also worked with Osling for her debut production at the Metropolitan Opera, "Lucia di Lammermoor," last
September. The production was part of a season in which that opera company made a concerted effort to hire directors from other disciplines. I don’t think any city dweller or Manhattan visitor could have missed the dramatic posters of Lucia – looking more like a romance novel illustration than something for the opera.
Zimmerman got her first taste of working on an opera when she was hired by the Chicago Lyric Opera to stage a production of "The Magic Flute." But she doesn’t consider that her first real opera directorial job as they had already rented
sets and costumes for the production. "I say I just staged it as I had nothing to do with the physical look except for the lighting." However, in 2000, she directed Philip Glass’s opera "Akhnaten" for the Boston Lyric Opera, then two years later she directed the premiere of Glass’s "Galileo Galilei" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
She says: "In general opera is a very new and exciting area that’s opening up for me." However, the Metropolitan Opera debut with Lucia. was not without its detractors, including the notoriously cranky critic John Simon, who said some very dastardly things even in Zimmerman’s presence. She admits, "The opera thing is very huge, intimidating, and challenging. Some days I say `I love it, I love it.’ But they have their own rules and language. I’m proud of Lucia. There are
controversial things about it that surprised me because for the theater it wouldn’t be anything. In opera it’s earth shattering. I’m not used to being a figure of controversy. I guess it comes with the territory. The machine of the Met is difficult, but I’m getting used to it."
In the coming month, she is working with a new singer who will go into Lucia later this season. And Zimmerman will be back at the Met next season for "La Sonambula," again with Ostling on her design team.
She seems to have boundless energy even though she bemoans the fact that she’s not as peppy as she was when she was 30. And she hasn’t forsaken the theater for opera. Plans to reprise her "Arabian Nights" are in the works, with a tour after
it is reinvented at Lookingglass. She was on sabbatical from Northwestern this year but went back early to have time off next year for yet another project.
What’s brewing in her busy mind? When I ask her if there are any myths left she tells me that she is looking at a book of Turkish folk tales. "I’ve had that in mind for a long time," she says. And she’s also interested in doing something
she’s never done before which is to adapt an old play. She has her eyes on the "Avengers Tragedies" from the Jacobean era. "They’re long, dark, bloody, and sexy."
It is certainly obvious why she received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award in 1998. That’s almost a quarter of a million dollars well spent. If there were a work marathon prize, she would win that as well.
How does she keep up this pace? "It’s a drive," she says. "You find a way to make it happen." She feels that everyone is born equally creative and imaginative, citing just a look at children. "But at a certain point, some people put that away or they stop listening to it or they start dismissing it, treating it lightly as they would dreams at night. And other people don’t; they continue to believe and pursue their fantasies and take them seriously, using them in making music or dance or whatever art they do. Some of us have a restlessness when we’re not doing it." She concludes, "I have a need to make a different world from the world that I live in, and I like to inhabit that world."
"Argonautika: The Voyage of Jason and the Argonauts," through Sunday, April 6, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Drama recounts Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece as written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. From Lookingglass Theater
Company. $33 to $49. Ages 14 and up. Mature content and language. 609-258-2787.