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Helmer’s hat trick

Chi hosts three Zimmerman shows

The woman who made Ovid into a Broadway hit is now launching her take on Jason and the Argonauts.

Premiered at the Lookingglass Theater Oct. 28, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation, “Argonautika,” is one of three works by the theater artist to bow in Chi this season. Her play “M. Proust” was presented at Steppenwolf over the summer. And in May, she’ll revisit “Mirror of the Invisible World,” based on the 12th-century Persian epic “Haft Paykar” (The Seven Portraits), for the Goodman, where she first staged the show 10 years ago and is now a resident director.

A local fave for years with her highly visual stage explorations of myths and classic texts, Zimmerman, 46, has gradually built a national following. She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998 and took home the 2002 Tony for directing “Metamorphoses,” her adaptation of the myths of Ovid. She’s even landed on the Disney radar.

“Mary is one of those rare artists who create their own language on the stage,” says Roche Schulfer, exec director of the Goodman. “You don’t go to a show that she directs and confuse it with anyone else’s. It’s unmistakably Mary.”

Zimmerman finds a way to make the metaphorical physical, bringing in movement and striking visuals.  In “Metamorphoses,” for example, which was staged in a swimming pool, a spotlight of rain falls on someone who was “drowning in tears.” And while she’s a rigorous auteur in the mold of Robert Wilson, her work also has a childlike sensibility, and a sense of humor, that makes it potentially more mainstream.

The distinctiveness of Zimmerman’s vision has made her something of a brand name. Schulfer says from the experience of watching audiences stream into her shows at the Goodman that she draws a younger crowd than the traditional subscription season holder. There’s a craving, he believes, for “theater that can’t be replicated on a screen.”

As the success of “Metamorphoses” proved, her attraction to rarefied source material and abstract visualizations — at their best packing a genuine emotional wallop — can reach a broad, even commercial, audience. Her humanized interpretation of the Ovid text, with its themes of rebirth and enduring love, connected with New York auds hungry for uplifting entertainment after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Mary is learned, but she’s not a snob,” says Steppenwolf a.d. Martha Lavey, who has known the director since they were students together at Northwestern U., where Zimmerman still teaches. “The way she conceives something for the stage is how she thinks and feels it. It has real currency, and it comes across in a very unencumbered way.”

“Clarity is one of the things that is most important to her,” says David Catlin, Lookingglass artistic director and a performer in “Argonautika.” “She works hard to tap into a personal place that is true for all of us.”

While Zimmerman’s work can be accessible to an audience, her unique and demanding process can be a real challenge to a theater, and to a cast. While she works on the designs in advance, she shows up on day one of rehearsal with no text. She’ll explain her basic ideas to the cast, spend the day rehearsing, get a few hours’ sleep, wake at 2 a.m. and write something to bring in next day.

It’s grueling, but it forces her to call on instinct over intellect. “I know it sounds hokey, but I seldom remember writing the text, although I do (write it),” Zimmerman says. “It’s not improvised. The whole process of rehearsal takes me somewhere beyond my control.”

Zimmerman’s process hasn’t changed that much over the years, nor have her primary obsessions. “Almost everything I do is something I read before I was 12,” she admits. She always knew she’d eventually tell the story of Jason’s search for the golden fleece, and his marriage to Medea.

What has changed over the years, of course, is who comes calling. Disney, for example, on the surface seems a natural fit for Zimmerman’s adoration of myth, and for her affinity for a childlike perspective.

At various points in her career, Disney has sought her out to discuss writing an animated film or directing a live-action show. But for Zimmerman, there’s a repeat pattern of temptation turning to trepidation: “There’s all this interest and all these meetings,” she says of her experience of being wooed. But eventually, she gets a message on her answering machine that goes something like, “Can the quest they’re on not be a spiritual quest? Can’t it just be a quest for a magic sword to save the kingdom?”

At that point, she says, “I stop returning calls.”

Zimmerman’s career is developing in other ways. She’s remounting her own work more as demand grows. She also has begun to direct more traditional plays, ones that she doesn’t write herself. Most recently, she directed a well-received staging of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” at the Kennedy Center and the Goodman. And she’ll work on a whole different scale in fall 2007, when she makes her Metropolitan Opera debut, directing “Lucia de Lammermoor.”

In the meantime, Zimmerman seems happy continuing to explore tales about “what it is like to be a person, to experience loss, to have to change.”

“The reason I do what I do,” she says, “is that I have a completely nerdy love for literature and stories, and that’s where I’ve lived most of my life.”

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