12 March 2004: Metamorphoses

Hartford Stage. Based on the Myths of Ovid. “Written and Directed by Mary Zimmerman.” Staged by Eric Rosen.

The only way I can think of what distinction may lie between “directed” and “staged” is to presume that Rosen has restaged the production as originally directed by Zimmerman. Whatever the distinction finally amounts to, this is a lovely, brilliant piece featuring a full-size, very shallow but gradated rectangular pool of water with a foot-wide walking platform surrounding it. Above right, steps up to a rather conventional and slightly shabby double door, of the sort found as exterior doors in many urban houses; well above and left, a bridge platform, also used for entrances and appearances, with a hidden staircase in back giving access to the stage level. An additional black-flatted entrance at either side completes the setting.

Out of this simple, straightforward though highly unorthodox arrangement emerges a series of mythic tales drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (in a free verse translation by David Slavitt); I purchased copies of the Zimmerman text and the Slavitt translation. The frame story is of King Midas, who foolishly wishes for the golden touch, gets it, and immediately turns his daughter to an inert gold form, frozen and lifeless. He asks for this curse to be taken away and is told he must walk to the end of the earth and bathe his face and hands in a pool of water he will find there. He begins his journey, and the stories begin as well, flowing (some­times literally, through delightful watery reenactment) one after another. At the end, Midas arrives at his sought-after pool, bathes his hands and face, and his daughter is restored to him. Numerous small vessels with votive-light candles have been set adrift in the pool, now occupied by the rest of the mythic charac­ters. As the lights fade and Midas joins the others, along with his daughter, in the pool, the candles are blown out and the lights go dark, ending the play on a long, languorous note, silently, peacefully — to great applause by an appreciative audience.

The stories blend one into another in this intermission-less series of actions drawn almost entirely from Ovid but, in a kind of variorum sequence of versions of the sad tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, Rilke’s bleak modern version is drawn in, in which Eurydice, as Orpheus breaks his resolve and looks back at her, asks who he is? The long trek from Hades has removed her so far from consciousness of her lover and the situation they are in that memory and presence are alto­gether lost, and she returns to Hell, an uncomprehending shell of her former self.

Fortunately, most of the stories are more hopeful than this, though not without the losses imposed by death at sea and the shocking tale of unwitting incest of a king with his all-too-complicit daughter. Many are the forms and shapes of love, Ovid teaches us in this long poem written late in life, in exile from the Rome he so loved, and — such is the course of desire, frustration, or fulfill­ment — many are the transformations it exacts, or endows. Yet overall there is a fine, bracing, light-hearted quality to the enterprise, the tone bolstered and sustained by the freedom and colloquial quality of the language, approaching the directness of vernacular speech without quite ever departing from a nice, loose yet rhythmic verse. I could hear the iambics now and then, and even occasionally a discrete pentameter line, but there was never any obtrusive formality to it. The actors spoke it in a natural, offhand, yet clearly accented way, sometimes with body mikes turned up for greater clarity or for an echo effect. Nothing here was heavy-handed or awkward. In fact, the consistent tone of the production was one of its greatest pleasures.

The actors were extremely well rehearsed and always up to the considerable demands, including a high degree of athleticism and a muscular gymnastic grace and aplomb, imposed on them by the requirements of the script and direction. I wasn’t sure at first I was going to like this because of its seeming lack of real structure and the inevitably eclectic nature of the material; but it grew on me quickly, and I ended up finding it a sheer delight and surprisingly productive of musing and reflection.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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