Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Four years ago, when Mary Zimmerman first started getting citywide attention for her stage adaptations of The Arabian Nights and Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, one of the most frequently repeated criticisms of her work, both in the press and on the gossipy street, was that she was a mere disciple of Frank Galati and her work a slavish outgrowth of his better-known experiments in adapting nontheater texts to the stage.

It’s true that Galati was one of Zimmerman’s teachers at Northwestern. But so was Paul Edwards. And professor emeritus Lee Roloff. And, for that matter, David Downs, in whose acting classes the Lookingglass ensemble first coalesced. An apprentice to all these masters, Zimmerman has nevertheless managed to do what few students in our dysfunctional culture accomplish: she’s learned from her teachers without being afraid to surpass them.

Now, seven local and two New York productions after her initial success, Zimmerman has proved she’s an artist in her own right, a playwright-director with her own voice, style, and methods. Her work may have roots in chamber theater, as does the work of most of her fellow graduates of Northwestern’s performance studies program, but her use of texts is much less orthodox than the more literal-minded adaptations that crowd Chicago’s stages.

With one noteworthy exception, Zimmerman has never simply taken a novel and transferred it plot, cast, and story to the stage the way the folks at Lifeline or Roadworks do. Instead she monkeys with the structure and substance of the literary work, moving things around, editing out long passages, retelling much of what’s left in her own words (as she did in her mildly feminist middle-class American retelling of The Arabian Nights), or creating a whole new structure, as she did in her collagelike The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, based on a massive, disorganized collection of unbound papers. Zimmerman’s conventional theatrical adaptation of Laughter in the Dark is the one exception. And, interestingly, it is also her least successful work to date.

Zimmerman’s new show, S/M, is another work like Notebooks, this time cobbled together from the writings of two of European literature’s more hot-blooded authors, the infamous Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch–both men who’ve lent their names to particular sexual proclivities: sadism and masochism. (It’s a shame they never dated.)

The choice at first seems a natural for Zimmerman. Sade left a huge body of work: thick, obscene novels like Justine and One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom and thinner, slightly less scandalous plays like Philosophy in the Bedroom. Add to that the writings about Sade published over the years, among them Simone de Beauvoir’s “Must We Burn Sade?” and Maurice Lever’s 626-page biography, published in the early 90s, both of which Zimmerman alludes to. Then there’s the correspondence to and from Sade, plus the journal entries about him. Now think of Sacher-Masoch’s writings and the related correspondence and journals–I recall seeing that Re/Search recently published the writings of Sacher-Masoch’s wife, Aurore Rumelin, recounting their master-slave relationship (she was the master), though Zimmerman doesn’t specifically refer to this. Clearly you have a stack of literary sources too high to be comfortably wedged into a conventional two-hour chamber-theater adaptation.

But as you might expect from a director who could spin a transcendentally beautiful work of theater out of da Vinci’s heap of fragments, Zimmerman digests all this remarkably well, turning out a crisply acted, visually stunning 90-minute work. Yet as in Journey to the West there’s something cold and sexless at the center of S/M even though the show is packed tight with handsome and beautiful actors holding beautiful props, wearing sumptuous period costumes, and sitting on fine, expensive-looking chairs. And I haven’t even mentioned the sexy remodeled space, an intriguing tennis-court-shaped stage surrounded on all sides by a three-tiered scaffolding where the audience sits.

Confronting a stack of erotic writings, Zimmerman has chosen to meditate on the nature of theater and creativity–and to a lesser extent on the nature of power. Which is not a bad thing in and of itself: it’s fascinating to see unfold before your eyes a play packed with this many scenes intended to remind you that you’re watching a work of art. Zimmerman gives us plays within plays; stages scenes from Sade’s life, then replays them as quotes from his novels; even breaks the stage reality to deliver Pirandellian moments when the actors play themselves rehearsing a play called S/M. And, of course, by placing her work in a space surrounded on all sides by the viewers Zimmerman forces us to see at all times what we sometimes forget, that we’re an audience watching a play.

After a while, however, it’s frustrating to be led on by Zimmerman and her actors and designers, who seem to promise eroticism with their rich, sensual stagecraft and instead deliver a 90-minute essay on the nature of theatrical reality. Even the show’s one nude scene–a woman taking a bath–feels more like a parody of erotica than the real thing. Zimmerman’s sex scenes either have the innocence of children at play–as when Sade and his wife chase each other around a table–or they’re staged as mere power games in which men, even masochists, dominate women. Which is, I’m sure, Zimmerman’s point.

In all of her preopening interviews Zimmerman was quite clear that this was not going to be a “big, vulgar sex-fest,” as she said in Stagebill. But in her flight from vulgarity Zimmerman has created a sweet, asexual, fashion-plate world as distant from Sade’s mean, messy pornography as Disneyland is from reality. Though she routinely changes the structure of the works she adapts, as in Notebooks and The Arabian Nights, here she changes the tone as well. Don’t get me wrong, S/M is wonderful to look at, but every once in a while I found myself glancing at my watch to see how much more beauty I would have to endure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Mary Zimmerman.