Sofia Jean Gomez ( top ) and Charlette Speigner in Mirror of the Invisible World. Photo by Liz Lauren
Playwright: Mary Zimmerman after Nizami
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Phone: 312-443-3800; $25-$68
Runs through: July 29
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
Perhaps one day the adjective 'Zimmerman-ian' will be part of our lexicon to describe the decorative and intellectually savvy theatrical style of Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman. 'Zimmerman-ian' certainly applies to her exquisitely crafted Mirror of the Invisible World, now at the Goodman Theatre.
As with past Zimmerman adaptations like The Odyssey, Metamorphoses and The Secret in the Wings, Mirror finds its origins in an episodic and historical text—in this case, Nizami's poem ( Haft Paykar ) from ancient Persia.
It all centers on King Bahram, who hears tales of love ( both won and lost ) from each of his seven brides of different nations ( who are also each in a different color to match the pavilion they live in ) . The episodic nature of Haft Paykar certainly suits Zimmerman's penchant for creatively fleshing out a variety of tales in numerous locales or styles all in one performance. Zimmerman is known for doing this with a resourceful acting company and oftentimes simple theatrical trickery.
For example, the red Russian bride's tale of the Chinese princess Turandot ( the most familiar tale of the lot thanks to Puccini's opera ) incorporates inventive shadow play to depict legions of mechanized head-lopping soldiers and the mysterious cavern of a learned recluse. More shadow play and even a comic overhead perspective liven up the blue Turkish bride's tale of an Egyptian merchant terrified by deceptive demons.
This Mirror production is an aggrandized take on Zimmerman's originally staged 1997 production in the Goodman Theatre's former space at the Art Institute of Chicago. I didn't catch that previous production, but this Mirror strangely doesn't feel creatively fleshed out despite the much larger budget featuring lavishly airy sets by Daniel Ostling, opulent costumes by Mara Blumenfeld and moody lighting by John Clubert in a bigger Albert Theatre space.
Compared to previous Zimmerman shows that mixed up short and more-fleshed-out stories, there's a uniformity and rigid structure to Mirror, since each of the seven wives' tales are given the same weight. If you don't go in knowing you're in for seven differing tales, you're apt to get a little fidgety.
At least the company of eight is filled with standout performances. Several of Zimmerman's regulars—like Lisa Tejero, Anjali Bhimani, Faran Tahir and Atley S. Loughridge—show why they're masters at seamlessly switching through various male and female characters. They're joined by Zimmerman newcomers like Charlette Speigner, Sofia Jean Gomez, Nicole Shalhoub and Stacey Yen, who blend nicely into the ensemble.
Accompanying everything with an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern and Western instruments are the onstage musicians Gary Kalar, Ronnie Malley and Eve Monzingo, who give panache to sound designer Michael Bodeen's music.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh on expecting such wowing new highs from Zimmerman every time at bat, especially since many theatergoers in the hinterlands never see the high levels of Zimmerman-ian theatricality that Chicagoans have grown accustomed to. By all means go and delight in Zimmerman's beautiful stage pictures and stimulating storytelling. Mirror certainly sweeps you off into a fairy-tale world of enchantment.