Theater Review: Mary Zimmerman's metamorphosis of 'Silk'

The genius of Mary Zimmerman is again displayed in the current production at the Goodman Theatre. As a part of Lookingglass Theatre, her innovative and creative adaptations of the classics brought her to the attention of the wider world. Her ability to visually stage a work in new and creative ways makes her plays a joy to behold. The Manilow Resident Director at the Goodman, previous successes include The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, The Odyssey, Journey to the West, Metamorphosis, The Trojan Women, and in collaboration with Philip Glass, the opera Galileo Galilei, which premiered here.

Much of her work is based on the past. Silk, from the novel by Allessandro Baricco, was published only 12 years ago. In an interview with Tom Creamer, Goodman Dramaturg, Zimmerman explains how she picked it up at a book store and became enthralled with the story. Herve Joncour (Ryan Artzberger), a Frenchman who buys and sells silkworms, is compelled to journey to Japan when a disease destroys the silkworms in his native country. It is 1860, and the months-long trip takes him to Shirakawa, Japan, a small mountain village where he acquires the silkworms that will enable the French to continue producing the much-desired fabric.

Christopher Donahue narrates the story. Zimmerman explains her strategy by delving into details of literature and the difficulty of adapting a novel with very little dialogue. Nearly every member of the cast recites the repetitive details of Herve’s journeys. It becomes a poetic mantra.

The set changes dramatically on the Frenchman’s arrival in Japan. The dull green wall rises to reveal the light and gardens of the Orient. Hara Kei (Tohoru Masamune) is the Japanese merchant, and a beautiful woman dressed in the colors of the sunset rests her head on his lap. Elaine Yuko Qualter is the unknown woman who never speaks. Herve becomes besotted, and the story centers on unrequited love. Late in the play, he receives a letter in Japanese. His faithful wife, Helene (Colleen Delany), a seemingly minor character, assumes a major role in the conclusion.

My enthusiasm for Zimmerman’s work continues. Her subtlety and innovative staging is not always appreciated. If you haven’t seen her work, do try. Playing through June 5 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago at 170 N. Dearborn, tickets can be purchased by phoning (312) 443-3800. You can park at a facility on the southeast corner of Clark and Dearborn. Pick up a voucher at the box office for a discount ($11.50).

From the May 18-24, 2005, issue

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