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Review: 'Metamorphoses' makes old new again

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2010 - In late August last year, a healthy number of St. Louisans who’d not put eyes to Publius Ovidius Naso’s “Metamorphoses” since college, if ever, came to the Pulitzer Foundation in Grand Center to participate in a marathon reading of this glorious poetic account of the doings of the gods and mortals of classical antiquity. The experience had special reverberations, bringing as it did an added dimension to the foundation’s show of old master paintings and drawings. These pictures were arranged in small groups, the better to establish thematic relationships, both obvious and subtle, between the various individual works of art on show.

Many of these artworks had direct relationships with mythology, so reading Ovid and hearing the great Roman poet’s “Metamorphoses” read by others gave the poem astonishing visual as well as auditory immediacy. Then there is also the Ando building that houses the Pulitzer Foundation. Its serene simplicity accommodates majestically all art -– be it the most minimal or most lavish and exuberant. Rarely does a person have the opportunity to experience a triangulation such as this, where the sights and sounds conspire with space to provide an experience that is transcendent.

On Friday, audiences here have another chance to participate in another compelling Ovidian experience, this time the play “Metamorphoses” conceived by the polymathic Mary Zimmerman, who has been in the news recently for her production of Gioachino Rossini’s fantasy opera “Armida,” which received its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera this month. “Armida” received mixed reviews, but was distinguished by its star, Renee Fleming, and six -- count ‘em, six -- tenors.

In an advance article in the New York Times by one-time Opera Theatre of St. Louis business manager Matthew Gurewitsch, as well as in the Times’ review of the opera by Anthony Tommasini, Zimmerman’s talent and theatrical moxie were portrayed thoroughly and glowingly. But St. Louisans can judge all that for ourselves this week, and weekend after next. On Wednesday, in advance of the opening of the play, Zimmerman will deliver Washington University’s annual Women’s Society Lecture at 11 a.m. April 21, in Graham Chapel.

The lecture is “Bodies I Have in Mind: Adapting Ancient Texts for the Stage.” This lecture is one in a series given in memory of civic leader Helen Clanton Morrin by the university’s Performing Arts Department. On Thursday, Zimmerman will offer "Opera and its Discontents" at 4 p.m. in Room 276 of the Danforth University Center. Both lectures are open to the public and are free. Friday evening, “Metamorphoses,” opens in Edison Theatre for a three-day run.

The idea of staging “Metamorphoses” belonged to Washington U. drama professor Henry Schvey, who said he fell in love with the Zimmerman “Metamorphoses” in 2001. He happened to see the play almost “by accident” in 2001 before it moved to Broadway, to the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2002. Zimmerman received a Tony Award for best director in 2002.

The play actually came to life first on a college campus in 1966 at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., where Zimmerman teaches. It was called “Six Myths” then, before it headed to New York with a new name, “Metamorphoses,” and a much higher artistic and commercial profile.

It opened in New York off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre, where Schvey saw it. “It was staggeringly beautiful,” he said, “but beyond that I had the sense it was completely original, that it was at once a play that was both ancient and intensely modern.”

Furthermore, Schvey said, “Metamorphoses” works its way into the consciousness of audiences, directing them to look at theater in a new way. “So many of us are conditioned by film and theatrical realism,” he said. “We are used to sitting back and letting plays act on us. Audiences are used to being passive receptacles.

“This play not only moves the audience but also allows it to become part of the dramatic process.” Involving the audience asks it to make links, connections, between Midas and a Wall Street banker and a common greed for gold, for example, or, by contrast, between grandiosity and nobility in the situation that involves disguised gods and Baucis and Philemon, whose love exceeded any desire for wealth. Such striking connections, once established, drive an audience into an active mode, Schvey said, and its members are not only implicated in the action but are forced to make more complex metaphorical or philosophical connections between themselves, the players and the art.

“I don’t think there are many works of art that do that,” Schvey said. He said he found in Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid both an uncovering of a classic and a transformation of it. “Many of us have gone to ‘The Metamorphoses’ for source material,” he said. And as a source it is rich indeed. “Mary Zimmerman creates an arc to the classics that conveys the audience on a journey. And we are given not just glimpses of this passage. We are taken on a coherent and subtle journey from self love to selflessness.”

The play is about love, transformation and loss, he said. In the Washington University production, the stage supports a large and weighty pool of water. This is essential to the production, he said, not mere stage decoration.

“It is a huge challenge to all concerned,” he said. Everybody and everything gets at least a little bit wet. And it also challenges movement. “It is a viscous thing they have to move through,” he said, “Traces are left you ordinarily do not see in a play.”

Schvey concurs that Ovid speaks to contemporary audiences. He is clever, funny and self-conscious and creates stories within stories. “He brings himself into the narration,” he said. “And there is a postmodernist aspect of Ovid, in that he is a moral relativist. Everything in the play is intensely up to date.”

And in this production, everything in the play is intensely youthful as well. All the actors are students, and all these students are undergraduates. The play is produced by the university’s Performing Arts Department. Schvey is director. Michael Loui and Bonnie Kruger designed the sets and costumes respectively; lighting is by Sean Savoie. “Metamorphoses” runs for the next two weekends, April 23-25 and April 30-May 2. 

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.