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"Metamorphoses" marathon draws unusual suspects

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 - The themes encompassed in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" play out again and again in great works of art, literature and history.

There's love, loss, betrayal and hubris.

That last one seems particularly poignant to Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis, whose cell phone battery got eaten right up with all the calls she's been getting about the very recent resignation and guilty plea of state Sen. Jeff Smith on federal charges.

Storch will be one of more than 70 from St. Louis to take part in the marathon reading of "Metamorphoses." Smith, who was scheduled to take part, will not.

Again and again in the classic by the Roman poet, hubris takes people down.

"Looking at history and doing a little bit of introspection is illuminating," Storch says.

Aside from its resonance with the current political drama playing out in town, "Metamorphoses" continues to weave its way into modern, daily life. And for organizers, who include the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the Old Masters exhibition, the St. Louis Poetry Center and River Styx, it was a chance to revisit a classic in a totally new way.

Beginning To End

First -- the format.

Instead of a series of excerpts, which are usually presented in readings, the entire narrative poem will be read aloud in 15 minute chunks. The event begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, ends at 7 p.m. that evening, and continues on throughout the next day with the same hours.

The logistics of figuring out how long the reading would actually take, and the management of the event, fell to Hannah Fullgraf, Kress Interpretative Fellow with the Pulitzer. That involved lots of reading and adding and dividing, and it ended with an estimated 18 hours of Ovid in all.

It Takes A Village

The next unusual aspect of the event -- the readers.

Sure, the usual suspects of local literati and people in the art world made the list. But to reach a broader audience, organizers stretched out further.

They got lawyers, Fullgraf says, politicians and members of the religious community. They got journalists, such as the Beacon's associate editor, Bob Duffy, and social activists, radio personalities and even people from some local companies, such as architectural firm HOK.

"We really have found a very wide, diverse crowd," Fullgraf says.

Some, like Storch, haven't read "Metamorphoses" before. She plans to sit down with the classic later in the week and doing a little reading.

"It's sort of a luxury to take the time to be involved in something like this," she says.

Then there's Dr. Florian Thomas, director of the Spinal Cord Injury/Dysfunction Service at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, director of the National MS Society Multiple Sclerosis Center and a professor of Neurology at Saint Louis University.

He first read "Metamorphoses" in high school in Germany. Back then, he was reading it in Latin.

But after being asked to read, he gave the work another look.

"And I've been devouring that since it arrived from Amazon 10 days ago," he says.

Now, every word seems modern and poignant.

There's construction and destruction, love and loss, he says.

"This is certainly extremely relevant."

Surround Art

Finally, unlike readings held in other places, the "Metamorphoses" marathon has another thing going for it -- old masters.

Ovid's epic has been credited as the inspiration for great works of art, and some of them will be on display during the readings, including Joachim Wtewael's "Cephalus and Procris."

Organizers hope the event, which is free, will bring in people from many backgrounds, both as readers and listeners. And Matthias Waschek, the Pulitzer's director, thinks a mini-St. Louis will be represented. The event will not only give people the chance to discover or rediscover Ovid and all the ways his work has been drawn upon throughout time, but also to come together as a community.

"Normally, these readings are with a very specific group of people," he says.

But this weekend, the people, the format and the setting keep the experience from getting too esoteric, Storch thinks, "and engaging a pretty broad spectrum of people is really the kind of thing we need to be doing."

Other age-old themes she and other readers can look forward to getting into over the weekend -- fate and change.

Storch, who previously said she would consider making a bid for Smith's 4th District state Senate seat, hasn't made any public statements on her next move, by the way.

"I'm still thinking through the situation, to be honest."