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Mirror of the Invisible World

Mary Zimmerman revisits her 1996 work based on a Persian poem with very welcome results.

By Chicago
Anjali Bhimani and Faran Tahir
in Mirror of the Invisible World
(© Liz Lauren)
Anjali Bhimani and Faran Tahir
in Mirror of the Invisible World
(© Liz Lauren)
Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman frequently revisits her own work, so it's no surprise she's returned to Mirror of the Invisible World, which she first staged in 1996 at the Goodman's 135-seat studio theater. This revival in the 850-seat Albert Theatre of the Goodman complex is a welcome piece of déjà vu that benefits from the larger space.

Utilizing the talents of Daniel Ostling and John Culbert, the same scenic and lighting designers of the first production, Zimmerman has enlarged and enriched the show's physical setting to create an ornately Arabesque Indo-Persian courtyard of graceful columns and arches, dappled and filtered light, ornate classical tile work, carved screens, and hammered brass lanterns. It makes one wish to be onstage, sitting in the welcoming courtyard.

Zimmerman also has added three live musicians sitting onstage, who subtly deepen and amplify the storytelling and physical movement, with the use of a variety of mostly Middle Eastern percussion, string, and woodwind instruments. Otherwise, the production is very much as it was originally, including the presence of three previous cast members.

Mirror is Zimmerman's second foray into classical Persian literature, the first being The Arabian Nights. Unlike that familiar folkloric collection of stories by many authors, Mirror is based on a single work, the Haft Paykar of the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami. The Haft Paykar, which literally means "seven beauties," tells of fictive Persian King Bahram (Faran Tahir), newly come to the throne, who takes as wives seven beautiful princesses, one each night in a single week.

As the curtain rises, the king lounges with his brides lined up behind him in luxurious color-coded costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. Like those sets of dolls often given to young girls, each woman is in the costume of her national origin: India, Byzantium, Turkey, China. Between his "labors," the exhilarated but exhausted king asks each Princess to tell him a story. In typical Persian fashion, each spins a story within a story within a story, ending in a lesson about love, honor, and the elevation of the soul. Most of these stories will be unknown to audiences, although an early version of Turandot is among them.

These stories, some somber and several raucously funny, summon up the main currents of human relationships: lust and desire, patience and reward, greed and generosity, sacrifice and perseverance, cruelty and kindness, faith and fear, mystery and simplicity, etc. with an occasional dip into demonology. The cast of seven women, who take on multiple roles of both sexes, are necessarily athletic, graceful and versatile, and are skilled at both comedy and drama.

Mirror begins slowly but gains speed as it stretches towards the end; but at two hours and 40 minutes (with intermission), the work is a good 20 minutes longer than it needs to be. Being both playwright and director, Zimmerman doesn't have quite the objective distance needed to be a merciless editor.

Moreover, while the production casts a visual and aural spell, it nonetheless demands close attention on the part of audiences. But the rewards of this Mirror make it well worth looking into.


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