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a Play By Mary Zimmerman
I CANNOT REMEMBER A TIME when scholarly interest in a particular classical author was equaled, and maybe exceeded, by a popular enthusiasm measured in weeks on the best-seller lists, boffo box office, and Tony awards. But this seems now to have happened with Ovid. Latinists for some time have been taking Ovid much more seriously than they had done, making his poetry a vehicle for new directions in their work. Over roughly the same period, we have seen Ovidian novels by David Malouf, Christoph Ransmayr, and Jane Alison; fresh translations and ambitious reworkings by Ted Hughes and other poets; and now a remarkable new play by the extraordinary Mary Zimmerman (Circle in the Square, New York, N.Y., from 4 March 2002). 1
Zimmerman, a professor of performance studies at Northwestern and a former MacArthur fellow, is a major figure in innovative theatrical venues nationwide. She is known to classicists particularly for her adaptation of the Odyssey, which has been staged in a number of cities since its 1989 premiere. Metamorphoses is, however, her first Broadway production. The show opened off Broadway last fall, and that run was preceded by several others in Chicago, Seattle, Berkeley, and Los Angeles over the past five or more years. 2 As a result, probably everybody [End Page 623] knows something about the play, if only that it is staged in and around a pool of water. The pool is in many ways the star of the show. In the play's opening episode, the Cosmogony, it signifies elemental water, and it recalls its original elemental role in subsequent appearances while signaling that in an Ovidian world, even elemental substances undergo constant change. Thus, water, the most protean of elements, becomes the luxurious swimming pool of a nouveau riche Midas, the ocean in which Ceyx drowns, the food devoured by Erysichthon, Narcissus' mirror, a basin to hold Myrrha's tears, the River Styx when it is crossed by Orpheus, another swimming pool (or maybe the River Po?) on which Phaethon neurotically floats. The pool is surrounded by a three-foot-wide deck, and the minimalist set is completed by an imposing double door behind the pool and to the left; a raised platform behind the pool and to the right; a rectangle of painted skyscape, vaguely reminiscent of Magritte, above the platform; and a chandelier above the pool. A cast of ten actors plays a couple of dozen characters, changing in and out of costumes that are evocative of a generalized antiquity but one in which such things as suspenders and trousers are not unknown: a dream antiquity, then, in which modern viewers can lose themselves or find themselves as circumstances dictate.
The advance notices that I had heard or read prepared me to enjoy the play, but its power surprised me. Metamorphoses was an elating experience and one that moved me nearly to tears. It accomplished this by unexpected means. The script is not designed as a vehicle for virtuoso acting. The cast respect this quality in their lines and do not overplay the hand that they are dealt. Instead, the basic emotions of each story are allowed to speak directly. Not that the script or the actors' readings are naïve—on the contrary, they are generally inflected in just the right directions throughout a series of episodes that are, by turns, campy, risqué, or silly and then sweet, shocking, or exquisitely, heart-wrenchingly sad. It is in fact here that this play and this production excel: Laughter and tears walk side by side in each episode but with a different cadence in each case. Now tears are a reproach for taking a story too lightly; now laughter lightens and consoles in the midst of sorrow. In conducting the audience through this spectrum of emotions, Zimmerman has captured the seriocomic element in Ovid as perhaps no other interpreter has ever done. 3 It is worth mentioning here that the basis of Zimmerman's text...