Leave it to writer-director Mary Zimmerman, so agile at theatricalizing ancient tales, to treat storytelling itself as an aphrodisiac. This sumptuous re-mounting of “Mirror of the Invisible World,” her take on a 12th century Persian epic she first staged a decade ago, guides us through seven separate tales of love, as a king gallivants among his new brides. While the obscurity and episodic nature of the source material might not make this Zimmerman’s most commercially popular effort, this is lovely work — fluid and colorful and incessantly seductive.
A lot has happened to Zimmerman since she first staged this show at the Goodman’s old studio space in 1997. She has won major awards (the MacArthur Fellowship, the Tony for her Ovid-inspired “Metamorphoses”) and has worked on bigger and bigger stages — next up is the Metropolitan Opera, with “Lucia de Lammermoor.” But returning to an earlier work demonstrates how consistent her aesthetic remains.
Based on the “Haft Paykar,” an epic by poet Nizami that literally translates as “Seven Portraits,” “Mirror of the Invisible World” provides the perfect example of how Zimmerman can take the exotic and transform it into the familiar, without losing the mood of fairy-tale fantasy.
Greater resources are put to good use here. A new set from Daniel Ostling captures the grandness of a Persian king’s chamber, while live music, played by three onstage musicians, helps enhance both the Middle-Eastern setting and the feeling of enchantment. But while the trappings add to the overall impact, Zimmerman’s work is fundamentally grounded in simplicity and clarity.
King Bahram (Faran Tahir) fills us in on the backstory leading to Zimmerman’s entry point. The king has brought seven princesses from around the world to be his wives, built a palace with seven pavilions to house them, and will spend the week moving from one to the other, seeking to know and love them through the stories they tell.
While each princess narrates, the rest of the gifted ensemble stages the tales, each new fable coming fully to life with particular help from Mara Blumenfeld’s stunning costumes and John Culbert’s evocative lighting. There’s also assistance from some clever shadow puppetry, and a handful of even more clever props. “In Cairo,” begins one story, as the princess pulls a tray of miniature pyramids from a trunk.
The stories themselves, other than being about love in one form or another, don’t have a whole lot in common. They range from the sophisticated, spiritual tale of a prince who discovers the dark side of desire, to the straightforward, witty account of a princess who puts up challenges to suitors but is thrilled when she finds the one who can meet them.
Other than working with the colors with which the princesses are associated, Zimmerman finds a degree of narrative coherence and momentum in King Bahram’s increasing participation in the stories. While he hesitates to play a role at the beginning, by the final tale he has become a principal actor, so fully engaged that the story and the listener have merged.
Tahir is excellent at communicating how Bahram finds joy in being seduced by the tales. “Tell me a story,” he pleads, with increasing urgency, and therefore increasing humor, having fallen not just for his own brides but for storytelling itself.
In Zimmerman’s hands, such affection is contagious.