A good story never gets old. Anyone who has taken elegant leaps of imagination with director Mary Zimmerman, in fact, knows that a good story is always new. It's a belief that fueled her epic adaptation of The Odyssey and won her a Tony for stirring a post-9/11 Broadway with Ovid's mythical Metamorphoses. (Both were staged for the Seattle Rep in 2000.)
"I'm definitely someone who believes that these stories don't hang around just because they've been canonized," she says during a telephone conversation from Chicago. "I think if they weren't earning their keep, they'd be out of print, and no one would have heard of them whatsoever. [They] address the kind of primary things—that we know we're going to die, that there's radical change in our lives that we have no control over—that happen to every human being."
Zimmerman's ability to tap into the primal urge behind storytelling will take new shape when she brings her touring The Secret in the Wings to the Seattle Rep (running Wed., March 2, through Sat., March 26; 206-443-2222 for tickets and information). Unlike the stunning spectacle of The Odyssey, a work so hugely fluid and expansive that it seemed cinematic in scope, Wings, which weaves together a series of mostly unfamiliar fairy tales,is a more modest piece. Using her typical commingling of lucid imagery with playful, sometimes anachronistic irreverence, oddly volatile stories like "Silent for Seven Years"—in which some children are turned into swans and can only be rescued by their sister's vow of silence as she knits them each a jacket of flowers—are framed by Zimmerman's take on the classic "Beauty and the Beast," until a larger picture of what she calls "the menace that girls feel in childhood" is formed.
"Secret in the Wings is a little different, because all the language in the show is mine," she explains. "I'm not using a famous-brand adaptation. In a way, I did it from memory—or I'd look [the stories] up, but then I'd close the book. It's the most personal of anything I've ever done. Don't quite expect the giantness of feeling that happens with Ovid, because it's a smaller plot of land that's being trod."
Smaller, perhaps, but according to advance raves from Chicago, just as haunting—and she knows exactly whom she hopes to haunt the most.
"The ideal customer for this show, to me, is a 12-year-old girl," she notes. "And, in fact, such girls come, and then they come back six and seven times to the show, because they recognize that something is being spoken about their lives that is sort of illegal to speak—that there's sexuality surrounding them, and that there's a predatoriness surrounding them."
Zimmerman's shows have always had a childlike purity to them, a serene storybook loveliness that draws you in without avoiding the world's ugly evils. Heartrending things happen to her characters, yet the ease with which Zimmerman unravels them—she has an often devastating eye for composing the perfect emotional space between bodies onstage—makes the darkness seem an intrinsic part of the light.
"I don't think people should sanitize [fairy tales] as they sometimes do now, as though you can't be exposed to anything scary or grotesque," she explains. "Because, in the end, the children of fairy tales are resilient and overcome these horrible obstacles. And I think that's the point. And people who miss that point are not very smart about how stories work. It's not actually dangerous to hear a dangerous story."
Zimmerman created the show 14 years ago for lookingglass, the Chicago-based company of Northwestern University alumni. She almost always develops shows specifically for the people she casts. Though her pieces now require 45-minute, highly physical auditions, the initial production of Wings was somewhat less formal. ("I think I just said, 'Who wants to be in it?'") It was a late-night offering from the then-young company—a strictly bare-bones affair, she recalls, featuring long, imagistic passages without dialogue. Yet it was a company favorite.
"There was something kind of enchanted about it," she marvels. "Thirteen years later, we have five or seven of the original nine cast members, which is unheard of in the theater [though only two of them will appear in Seattle]. And the other great thing is, it really has changed. I've added two stories, and it has this set, which is rather large. But it has the heart and soul of having been written for these people."
Zimmerman's allegiance to Northwestern, where she did both undergrad and postgrad studies and remains a professor, goes all the way back to arriving at the university as an 18-year-old from Lincoln, Neb. She was thunderstruck by the school's special concentration on adapting nondramatic texts for the stage.
"It was like manna from heaven that there was actually an entire department devoted to the intersection between literature and performance," she remembers. "I've been a compulsive reader my whole life. I do these things because I want to live very intensely in them."
It wasn't until a grad-school performance-art class, she adds, that she even considered directing as her calling. "I started doing more and more elaborate pieces [until] it just became easier for me not to be in them. [That] wasn't the important part— it was the creation of the images and the composition and all that. So I never in my life have taken a directing class."
Well, something's working, though she'll be damned if she can tell you what it is.
"When I did The Notebooks of Leonardo [which made its Rep appearance in 1997], the first big thing that hit here in Chicago for me, I would tell my cast on almost a daily basis, 'No one's gonna like this—it's not going to be understood, but we're having an incredible adventure doing it,'" she says, laughing. "And then it outsold A Christmas Carol at the Goodman."
So what does she hope for in Seattle's Wings run?
"What you're always after is the feeling of rightness," she concludes. "And I guess by right I mean that it's true to the text. Some of these stories are really strange—it makes you wonder about human nature that such an old story somehow survived, and that it must be speaking in some way to us."