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Rooms with a View

By Catey Sullivan

MAY 15, 2000:  In part because her mother had done exactly the same thing, the summer of the year Mary Zimmerman turned 18, she picked up Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past."

"I thought I would finish it in one summer. That's what my mother had done," Zimmerman recalls. "Instead, it took me four years to get through." When she made it through the final page of Proust's 3,000-page work, Zimmerman was hardly finished with the twining, complex study of unrequited love, coming of age and, she says, "a million other things."

More than a decade later, Zimmerman charged a small group of Northwestern undergraduates to come up with performance pieces based on the sprawling, evocative work of literature. This week, a few of those then-students, as well a handful of new faces, embark on "Eleven Rooms of Proust."

"It's exciting, and dark and a little hallucinatory. And it's huge," Zimmerman says. In fact, "Eleven Rooms of Proust" is a cavernous 90,000-square-feet -- audiences will be conducted through the roughly hour-long piece within the confines of 4039 North Ravenswood, a warehouse-turned-performance space.

The production is joint collaboration between Zimmerman's Lookingglass Theatre, the About Face Theatre and the Goodman Theatre, where Zimmerman is an artistic associate. "Eleven Rooms of Proust" completes a gratifying circle of success for About Face, which was hatched by Kyle Hall and Eric Rosen when both were students in Zimmerman's "Performance of Individual Literary Styles" class.

"It changed my life," Hall says with matter-of-fact earnestness. "Until that class, I always thought I'd be a chorus boy. It was in Mary's class that I realized I didn't want to do musicals."

"Eleven Rooms of Proust," directed by Zimmerman, was one of About Face's early successes. "Eric wrote a grant application without telling me," Zimmerman recalls. "Then he came to me with this $15,000, and suddenly, we had the money to do the production.''

Performed in a teetering old mansion and based on the scenes Zimmerman's students had come up with in class, "Eleven Rooms of Proust" opened in 1998, with a two-week-run that sold out even before the first performance.

Since that time, About Face and Zimmerman have cemented their collective reputation as theatrical forces that deserve attention. Zimmerman has collected the MacArthur Foundation's "Genius" grant and gained a national profile for her visually opulent and emotionally layered stage adaptations of Homer's "The Odyssey," Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and tales from Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, among other triumphs. About Face Theatre, meanwhile, has exploded into critical consciousness with productions such as "Dream Boy," "A Home at the End of the World" and "The Boys in the Band." And, at the 1998-99 Jeff Awards, About Face walked off with more citations than any other theater in town.

The revisiting of both companies to Proust is a study in Chicago's outside-the-box creativity. Zimmerman learned of the vacant space at 4039 North Ravenswood through a Lookingglass board member who had coffee with someone who knew someone who knew someone else who was thinking of maybe buying the place. Depending on who is telling the history of the space, the building has housed Esquire magazine offices, a linen factory or an assembly line for CTA seating. The space might seem ill-suited to an adaptation of a novel set in nineteenth-century France, but Hall sees the contrast between space and story as part of the appeal of the warehouse.

"We have this beautiful period piece that we've placed in a raw, industrial space. That's created this incredibly exciting tension," Hall says.

The narrative of the piece deals with the love of a man named Swann for a woman named Odette. It is, says Zimmerman, the saddest piece she has staged: "Most of my pieces are funny at times, but not this one, not really."

"The production is as sad as love is, as love can be," Hall says. "But part of the whole point is that suffering opens us up to feelings things we might never be able to feel otherwise."

Zimmerman gives the sentiment in a slightly different form: "Those who make us suffer give us ideas and teach us things about who we are in ways that others never can," she says.

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