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Monday, April 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Love: Ancient, Modern, and Eternal

A Review of Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman, Circle in the Square, New York.

Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is modern, clever, and sure of itself. It has every right to be: it is beautiful, disturbing, and thought-provoking. New York theater audiences are usually elderly and fidgety; what was remarkable about the audience at Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses was its youth and absolute silence. The play is funny at times, and the audience laughed, but much of it is mesmerizing, and the silence was palpable. Many factors contribute to the entrancing quality of the performance. The set is beautiful: the stage is taken up by a small, spa-like swimming pool surrounded by wooden slats; the pool is ankle-shallow at one end and waist-deep at the other. There is a large, antiqued bronze door; a chandelier; a screen with clouds on it. The lighting gives this setting varied moods. The ensemble of actors moves quickly and speaks authoritatively in a number of different roles, in simple, versatile costumes. Within this framework, a few mythological stories are told. The thread that connects them is that they are all taken from Ovid’s Metamorphose (from a translation by David R. Slavitt). The myths are good to begin with, and Zimmerman has chosen an excellent translation. But she has selected well and synthesized them into a coherent whole. In her recent Odyssey, it seemed to me that she felt that she had to include everything; here, freed from any narrative claims, Zimmerman comes into her own.

The play begins with an invocation that asks the gods, as Ovid does, for help in telling the tales. A scientist briefly explains the chaos in which the world began, and then adds that what was missing was words. Man was born so that he might “talk.” The first man and the first myth are Midas and his famous golden touch. Midas is portrayed as a typical, twenty-first-century American male: he works all the time, has more money than he knows what to do with, and claims his long hours are for his family. He is shown up because he is clearly irritated by his young daughter playing nearby while he tries to talk about himself! He tells her to be quiet several times. The pace of the play is set; it is upbeat and slick. As for the gods, when they join in, they are funny and modern. When Midas requests that all he touches turn into gold, Bacchus responds, “That is a really, really bad idea.” We all know it is, too. Midas only realizes it when his up-until-then-irritating-daughter is turned to gold. Midas heads off to find a pool whose water will cleanse him of his golden touch and restore her to him. We meet him again at the very end of the play when he is reunited with her once more as flesh and blood. This ring composition was dear to Ovid and ancient writers, and it is the perfect way to draw in a modern audience, and send them home with a resolution.

Ceyx and Alcyone are next. This is an etiological myth of young love. The lovers will be turned into birds, and the origin of our term, “halcyon days,” is explained. The water in the pool, calm until now, becomes a violent storm, and, as Ceyx is drowned at sea, we see him being dragged under again and again, as a small model ship overturns and sinks. The water makes one feel the drowning; it is now dark, destructive, and dominating. When the young lovers are transformed to birds, the actors move in beautiful balletic movements that conjure up the birds they now represent (reminiscent of the insects in Paul Taylor’s Counterswarm).

We are then transitioned to Erisychthon, who scorns the gods and is punished for it. Ceres punishes him for cutting down a grove of trees sacred to her by sending insatiable hunger to gnaw at him from the inside out. Hunger, personified by an actress, leaps upon his back and will not let him go. His love is turned into a modern obsessive-compulsive disorder; his hunger is insatiable. He sells his own mother to be able to buy more food, and ends up carving into his own foot.

Zimmerman’s reading of the myths makes them immediately accessible, understandable, and relevant. She explains them clearly, but, at the end of the day, she seems to be proclaiming to this mythless generation of ours what Virgil and Freud both agreed upon: “amor omnia vincit,” or “love conquers all” – love of money or work or another or a father. I think Ovid would have said, “amor omnes vincit,” or love conquers everyone, and his love would not have been the gentle amor of Virgil, but the lust or erotic love of the Greek god of love, Eros. Ovid’s mythological characters have insatiable loves or needy lusts. Zimmerman acknowledges Freud, Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman, both in the text of the play and in the playbill. Psychotherapy is the modern myth, our new religion, and change through love is the currency of therapy; these myths speak to us through this language. The transformations are wrought by love. It seems deliberate that man is born out of chaos to supply “words” and to “talk.”

It is interesting that the least effective myth in the play is Orpheus and Eurydice, where a narrator asks what the story means. It is not only Ovid’s version that is rendered here, but also that of Rainer Maria Rilke, which does not add much to the myth and could have been omitted. The therapist’s lengthy asides in the Phaethon episode are a little heavy-handed, too. The monologue of Phaethon on the couch during his therapy session could have stood alone as a tour de force. (His yellow swimming trunks and yellow rubber raft on the cool blue water are dazzling, too, by the way.)

The problem faced by Ovid and Zimmerman – and a reviewer – in what is essentially a catalogue of myths is how to go from one story to another. Zimmerman does it self-consciously, and it works: now here is another story, or, as Ovid loved, the story within a story. The myth of Pomona and Vertumnus encircles the incest of Myrrha with her father, Cinyras. Zimmerman has not chosen the most obvious myths, and it is refreshing to see that she has portrayed these lesser-known ones on stage as opposed to playing it safe with Pyramus and Thisbe or Jason and Medea.

The explanation of the connection between Eros and Psyche is moving and to the point, as is the explication of the love of Baucis and Philemon, who ask to die at the same moment, and are turned into intertwined trees. Zimmerman’s text urges us to love, dream, and proclaim ourselves publicly and privately. It tells us to love until the end of our days. Perhaps this is why this play speaks to a modern audience. The love of the Metamorphoses is timeless and mythic, but it is delivered to us in a language and idiom that we can all understand and use. It urges us to remember our love and “our mythic side” – or the irrational – and it inspires us by its beauty and poetry. If, in retrospect, it is a little preachy, it does not seem so while one is watching it.

Natasha Prenn teaches Latin at The Bronx High School of Science.
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