Improvisational days, 'Arabian Nights' from Mary Zimmerman at Arena Stage

January 18, 2011

Mary Zimmerman loves her design team of more than a decade - and the team members love her back. They'd have to.

The visionary Chicago-based director has an unusual way of working that requires a special kind of cool from her designers. Whether she's adapting an ancient work of literature or creating a piece from scratch, Zimmerman starts rehearsals without a script or even a fixed idea of who's playing whom.

Composer/sound designer Andre Pluess describes the early stages of mounting a Zimmerman production as "a kind of marination process . . . an immersion in whatever the aesthetic is of the world that we're embarking on."

Daniel Ostling's set design is always under construction somewhere, however, because knowing what the stage will look like helps the director work. "Our sets tend to be what I call open fields of play," Zimmerman says.

Lighting designer T. J. Gerckens says Zimmerman and Ostling "will create an environment for the piece to happen in, and we'll talk about all the different things we can do in that environment . . . but then, once rehearsal starts up, then everything starts jelling and that's when you suddenly find script pages in your e-mail box."

The fluidity of the team's creative process requires an exceptionally high level of collegiality, one that allows for blunt critiques of each other's work. Zimmerman recalls with a cackle the time Ostling told Gerckens that his lighting for a brothel scene in "Pericles" made it look like a fabric-softener commercial.

As it readied the revival of Zimmerman's career-launching piece, "The Arabian Nights," for a run at Arena Stage, her team was faced with even more unknowns than usual. The production, one that the team has always designed for a thrust stage, had to be adapted for Arena's in-the-round Fichandler Stage.

Lighting was the biggest challenge. Gerckens - whom Zimmerman calls "a [expletive] genius" - says that without the architectural presence of a back wall, "I was really worried. What are we going to see the show against? What is going to be the contrast? What are the actors going to be popped out against . . . and the answer here is that [the Fichandler Stage] gets surprisingly dark for an arena stage. . . . It gets very dark in the house, and so you see the figures etched out against the darkness of the other side and it works really well."

Ostling - who, with Zimmerman, conceived the show's minimalist set of Persian rugs and hanging Middle Eastern lanterns - says he added more rugs and lanterns for Arena. "I was a little afraid it was going to feel a little empty, and I don't feel that way at all. As a matter of fact, Mary and I were joking that we should encourage the front row to pay more, because it feels like the best 3-D movie. . . .It just feels like you're so in the middle of it."

Actor-musician Ronnie Malley joined the show during its most recent Chicago run at Lookingglass Theatre Company in 2009. A teacher and performer of Middle Eastern music, Malley remembers answering a Lookingglass call for "somebody who could play the oud [a Middle Eastern lute], the harmonium [a miniature, piano-like instrument], the banjo, percussion, and could sing."

Playing in the round, Malley says, does affect "how you play an instrument - how loud you play an instrument." Doing "The Arabian Nights" in the round, Malley says, feels "as if now the play has become a pop-up book."

Neither costume designer Mara Blumenfeld nor her colleagues had a hand in designing Zimmerman's first version of "Arabian Nights" in 1992. But Blumenfeld was an undergrad at Northwestern University, where Zimmerman is a performance studies professor, and worked as an assistant on the show.

Blumenfeld says that she often doesn't know which actors she's creating which costumes for until late in rehearsals. Fortunately, the clothes in "Arabian Nights," unlike the 18th-century styles in "Candide," which Blumenfeld also designed for the director, are not form-fitting. If Zimmerman changes her mind about who will wear a costume, "there's a lot more wiggle room and the clothes are a bit more forgiving."

As for Ostling and his props makers, they have to create and build new props nearly every day in rehearsals, in addition to the final versions for opening night. Her costume and prop designers, Zimmerman says, endure the heaviest stress as opening night approaches.

And they keep right on tinkering and tweaking and experimenting until the show closes.

"You put such maniacal attention into certain details and then it's just gone," observes Zimmerman with a tinge of melancholy. "Every show, no matter how successful, every show ends. Every show goes. And even if you do it again, it never re-constellates in exactly the same way. It goes, it goes, it goes . . . that devotion to the thing which you know is going, and will die, is what gives it its enormous charge and intensity. And it's a very particular personality that devotes their life to that."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

The Arabian Nights through Feb. 20 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-554-9066 or www.arenastage.org .

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