Metamorphosis. Transformation. Becoming. Solid to Fluid to Gas. Birth to Life to Death. From Common objects to Gold. From Loneliness to Love. From Human to Devine. Such are the themes of Ovid’s collection of 250 poems in Metamorphoses. Such are the themes of the ten stories that Mary Zimmerman extracted from those poems to create her play, Metamorphoses, twenty years ago and now produced at Arena Stage.
While we may find many of the Latin names in Ovid’s myths somewhere between vaguely familiar, such as Bacchus and Hermes, and unpronouceable, such as Erysichthon and Ceyx, many of the stories are woven into our own cultural sensibility. Midas has his golden touch; Cupid brings love; Narcissus is absorbed with his own reflection; Aphrodite turns lust into envy. Ms. Zimmerman developed her play, Metamorphoses, as a reflection on the stories that she recalled from her childhood.
Much as Ovid’s original compilation, Ms. Zimmerman selected which stories to assemble into a theatric presentation from many stories. Ovid, the Roman poet, did not claim to have thought up the myths on his own. He took the oral traditions of the Roman era, selected many of these stories and constructed his poems. As one contemporary critic phrased it, Ovid just wrote his poems better than anyone else who used similar sources of the time.
For the most part, each myth that Ms. Zimmerman re-creates stands alone as ten scenes presented in sequence over the 90 minute show. Other than using the same cast to portray different characters in each myth and using the same stage with the addition or subtraction of a few props and adjustments to lighting, each story could stand alone.
But, the telling of myths are different from the telling of one longer story made up of inter-connected scene tied together by the passage of time. Myths can make a few minutes last for eternity. Or, hours, days, and seasons may be compressed into a few seconds. The focus of myths is not the telling of events but the exploration of ideas. Do we caution someone against greed by outlining the actions of those who accumulate wealth through ruthless business practices (Wallstreet) or organized crime syndicates (The Godfather)? Or, do we watch the glee of Midas turn to horror when his daughter innocently hugs him only to become a golden statue? Do we yearn for love by watching a boy-meets-girl romantic comedy (Pretty Woman)? Or, watch Psyche slip into Cupid’s bed chamber with a candle to see who her love is? Do we watch a tale of unrequited love (Cassablanca)? Or, watch Orpheus bargain with the Devil to be allowed to escort his wife, Eurydice, from the Underworld, only to see her slip away as he turns at the light of the entrance of the world? Ms. Zimmerman does appeal to our story telling sensibility for beginning, middle, end, by starting her Metamorphoses with the story of Midas, sending him on a trek for redemption, and bringing Midas back at the end to wash his hands of his foolish request of the gods.
I shall expand on only one element of the production, which Ms. Zimmerman has been experimenting with in different story telling plays: water. Theatrical staging is usually composed of a solid stage and atmospheric effects (dry ice fog, lighting, and snow/leaves sifted onto the stage from the flyspace). Water is usually referred to or represented, such as with lengths of cloth waved across the floor, or painted backdrops. But, water is the state between a solid and gas. Water is the space of metamorphosis. Water can become either solid, as the floor of the stage, or gas, as the air through which the actors move on stage. Set designer, Daniel Ostling, gives Zimmerman and the cast a pool in which to perform Metamorphoses.
The theatre-in-the-round of Anera Stage’s Fichlander theatre is bordered by four walkways about three feet wide. The rest of the stage is a rectangular pool, sloping from about six inches deep to sufficiently deep for actors to float or even descent into and disappear under the walkways. Staging usually provide the dimension of space (stage) and time (sequence of events). With the cast walking, floating, swimming, and thrashing through the water, this stage adds the element of weight and resistance. To cross the stage, whether fleeing from one’s adversary or to unite with one’s love, the actors are literally slowed by the water, creating waves and showers of splashes. Those in the know, sitting in the front row, brought ponchos for good reason.
This element of resistance also distorts the sense of solid and air. When Erysichthon is consumed with his gluttony, the gods send hunger to climb on his back. No matter how much he eats, hunger prevents him from feeling satiated. To represent this, he kneels in the water, splashing it up on himself, generating agitation in the water and the image of someone eating anything that he can without relief. This was more effective than having him seated at a table pretending to eat a bowl of food.
When Myrrha seduces her father, Cinyras, their veiled incest descends into the water, with rolling and positioning that sends waves crashing against the pool wall. Their condemned lust will not be contained to the Cinyras’ dark bed chamber, but will ripple out warning of this destructive relationship. These waves coming toward us and warning us to stay clear of this scene is more effective than forelorn faces of a couple crying on the edge of a bed.
Water allows for movement without movement. When Pysche slips into Cupid’s chamber wanting to see what her love looks like she begins the movement of the water in the pool. When he awakes from the mattress that floats in the pool, they lay together, still, rather than thrashing. But, the movement of the water from when Pysche walked through the water, continues to rock the mattress gently. Our footsteps, no matter how quietly performed, continue to provide motion in water, long after the time of action. Thus is the metamorphosis of action on stage into our minds and lives, long after the theatrical event has passed the curtain call and houselights rising.
A final interpretive element that Ms. Zimmerman has used to great effect is to transform the stories of Ovid’s poem into both classical Roman stagings (e.g. gods in togas) and contemporary images. The myth of Pheaton (son of the Sun and Clymene) is about the younger generation attempting to take on the roles of their parents before maturing. Pheaton requests to be allowed to drive the chariot that guides the sun across the sky for just one day. However, he cannot hold the reigns to control the horses. He guides the sun to high up and then too low down, resulting in devastation to the earth when cold and heat alternate between freezing and scorching the earth. Ms. Zimmerman writes this scene as a pyscho-therapy session with Pheaton floating on a yellow pool lounge cushion, whining about how his life has been ruined by his father, who did not preparing him for the demands of the world, and then let him be humiliated when he fell out of the chariot to earth. What better image of our self-absorbed youth could bring this myth to a modern audience.
Myth is about interpretation. At an after-the-play discussion with two curators from the National Gallery of Art, one of the panel discussed how Ovid made editorial interpretations through which myths he chose for his poems, and how Ms. Zimmerman made interpretive decisions by her selection of the ten myths for her play. They also talked about how visual artists, many represented by paintings and sculptures displayed at the National Gallery of Art, made interpretations of these myths over centuries of art.
But, myth-making is not an elite exercise for intellectuals. We tell and re-tell myths daily, in our contemporary lives. Mash relates myths about our understanding of war and healing. Seinfeld explores myths about self-absorbed lives without meaning or direction. Two and a Half Men contrasts our myths about relationships and family in an age of social disconnection and anxiety. Myths are not limited by the reality narratives, any more than Truth is limited by realty. Myths and Truth transcend reality, while the tales attempt to reconnect us with that which is this Mystery.
This Mystery can be related in many ways. We may read the scriptures attributed to Moses, or the letters written by Paul, or the poems of Ovid, or this play by Ms. Zimmerman. The objective of all these is that we become the transformation, the Metamorphosis.