There’s Something About Mary Zimmerman

Mary Zimmerman will tell you rather emphatically that she does not write children’s plays.

I wouldn’t argue with her about it. Technically, she’s right. Her plays are plays for adults, who think like adults. The emotions they engender are adult emotions: feelings akin to intellectual sadness, near heartbreak, confronting the new by way of the old.

Zimmerman has managed, over a couple of decades of directing and writing, to create a whole new kind of play, as yet difficult to fit into a descriptive category. And yet you come back to it: children, fairytales, storytelling, tales told around a campfire, the first writings of man. It’s that kind of thing, but made complicated, and made deep. She nonetheless uses the tools and imagination associated with children’s theater, both in terms of theater created FOR children, and sometimes the kind that children create themselves in their backyard under a tent: toys, clotheslines, dolls and sticks and pebbles, maybe with some singing and barking dogs thrown in.

I think she said it elsewhere herself, quoting Willa Cather: “I will never be the artist I was as a child.”
Zimmerman may just be that kind of artist—not childish or childlike, but basic, using the stuff that surrounds her, the every day things. And coating everything with magic.

Lately, we’ve gotten a burst of Zimmerman’s gifts on display, in two very different sorts of plays that nevertheless bear her directorial and authorial mark; we have seen an electric re-staging of Leonard Bernstein’s and Voltaire’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theater Company, which just completed a successful run. And now we can go see a re-do of Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights,” enjoying a buzz-filled run at Arena Stage.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen Zimmerman around here. She directed a memorable, haunting version of “Pericles” at the Shakespeare Theater Company along with her own creation, a take on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, called simply “The Argonautica.”

There is obviously some common thread running through these and other productions that Zimmerman has done with her company, the Looking Glass Theater, and the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

“I’ve always liked fairytales,” she said in a telephone interview. “I try hard not to lose that sense of wonder, that kind of imagination, as a way of looking at material. I like big, basic, iconic stories and themes. All of that. That’s one reason I like directing opera, working in that world. It’s so over the top, so emotional.”
Zimmerman has done several stints at the Metropolitan Opera, with mixed results from the critical world. “I loved doing it and still do,” she says nonetheless. “I don’t worry too much about what’s written about me or my work.”

“Candide” and “Arabian Nights” are two very different kettles of tea when it comes to theater, and she’s made both her own. “Candide” was first produced in the 1950s on Broadway, unsuccessfully, with a mixed bag of authors stirring the book, including renowned poet Lillian Hellman and Stephen Sondheim. But the wonderful music kept things alive for later revivals, and it remains the soulful heart of the show.

With Zimmerman directing, the project also returned to its original source: the great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire’s original thin fable of a novel, in which an innocent and sheltered naïf of a young lad (Candide) is thrown out into the cruel world of competing kingdoms, religions and general tumult of the 18th-century world, with his soul-mate Cunegonde.

So much happens to them—all the representative evils of the day, like pillage, war, rape, prison, the loss and gain and loss of fortune—it would turn most normal people into cynics. But Candide perseveres in the search for his love, whom he finds and loses again all over the world, from wars in France to El Dorado and back again.

“It’s a big story,” she said. “We went back to the roots, so to speak. And I have to say, I was so fortunate in casting the leads, Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina. Geoff was…heck, he is a little like a Candide. So I think they made the production very affecting for audiences.”

So did Zimmerman’s storytelling, as she used little wooden boats, stuffed red sheep, and toys and dolls and puppets as a way of rolling around the world. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes threatens to look silly, especially to jaded eyes used to movie reality. But with Zimmerman at the helm, it never does.

“Arabian Nights” is something else again, a series of stories writ large. “We, did this the first time on the eve of the Gulf War,” she said. “Even then, it echoed what was going on in the world, and nothing that’s happened since has changed that. It’s almost like coming full circle.”

The Arabian Nights are the tales told by a young woman named Scheherazade, who’s trying to save herself from the attentions of a king, so embittered by a previously unfaithful wife that he’s wed, bedded and killed a virgin every night for a year already. Scheherazade tells the king stories, hundreds of them, to keep his knife at bay.

“That’s the first thing you do with this, is choose the stories,” she said. “They are stories of love, betrayal, disguises, revenge, and they’re tall tales, funny stories, and stories of redemption.”

While the enterprise is astonishingly beautiful, and creates a buzz of argument as well as appreciation, it manages to achieve something else, the very thing that fairy tales do. It creates a quality of universal recognition.

In that sense, it connects to the present in how we move through the world. “It’s a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves,” Zimmerman says. “It’s a pre-condition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same as ourselves.”

The thousand tales are part of the lore of the golden age of Baghdad, which is of course the city nearly destroyed in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003. The wind carries the news in this play; we are not apart from the present. Or the past. All the stories here, about lovers who lose each other, about people who save and forgive each other, about the roar of jokes and situations, all recreate the glorious past of the legendary ruler Harun al Rashid. But they are also stories about ourselves.

“I hope that’s what happens,” Zimmerman says. “I hope those acts of recognition occur.”

Not to dwell on it, but there is a tale about a prominent citizen who at last decides to marry and is standing with his bride at the altar, when he is struck by a paroxysm of gas convulsions. What ensues is an extended, agonizing fart joke, every bit as rude as “Blazing Saddles”, but also touching, finished off by a classic vaudevillian punch line. It’s pretty simple, old men and young men, women and children all laugh at fart jokes. It’s our universal kismet, so to speak.

There are sweeter and equally universal moments in this play. With Zimmerman, we’re always on a wooden toy boat, going back and forth in time, on perilous journeys, on an adventure that makes us richer for the trip.

“Arabian Nights” runs at Arena Stage’s Fichandler in the Mead Center for American Theater through February 20.

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