Playwright Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of tales scribed by Roman poet Ovid, who lived on the cusp of the BC and AD eras, has already come to be considered as one of the truly great plays of the 21st century. Though its first incarnation, titled Six Myths, was staged in 1996 at Northwestern University, it was developed into a show that opened Off-Broadway in 2001 and on Broadway in 2002. It won the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Play. Morevoer: the Drama League Award for Best Play, a Tony nomination for Best Play, and the Tony itself for Zimmerman’s direction. Hence, it’s 21st century credentials.
More importantly is that in our time when the West seems to be under cultural attack, The Metamorphoses embodies the roots of western storytelling which have imprinted on the collective psyche whether we like it or not. It has been seriously speculated that after the Bible, it is the secondary source of inspiration for many iconic writers, like William Shakespeare, both in terms of spirit and content. The Bard’s sense of morality is clearly shaped by the biblical and what scholars call the Greco-Roman paganism of which Ovid rates along with Homer and the “Golden Age of Greece” playwrights as one of the central ancient figures of creative thought.
Zimmerman’s treatment of some of the tales within the Ovid work stays exquisitely true to both content and spirit, as she conjures some of the stories into an ultimately spine-tingling unified whole. To pull this off takes a delicacy in how the play is directed and performances that elicit emotional and intentional clarity.
Bear in mind that Ovid’s original is a vast and loosely epic sort of feat that spans from the creation of Earth to the deification of Julius Caesar, totaling more than 250 myths. Emperor Augustus exiled the poet from Rome in the early first century AD, possibly because of his Art of Love poems. Some speculate that these may have hit too close to home regarding the emperor’s sexual proclivities, though it is believed exposing those was not Ovid’s intention, or that he was even aware of them. There are also other theories. Note as well that it was Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, who ruled over the Roman province of Judea when Jesus Christ was crucified. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor at that time. This was indeed a punitively authoritarian era.
It is remarkable that the major theaters of two American cities where the attack on western culture has been in bold evidence have combined their resources to co-produce a revival of The Metamorphoses. Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater. The result is a luminous production directed by Zimmerman herself. Of course, it contains the big pool of water on which much of the action is played and which makes production costs prohibitive for many smaller theater companies.
The Berkeley-Guthrie staging is fittingly and beautifully delicate with moments of thunderous morality. That morality is evinced by the characters’ choices, not by moralizing and propaganda, qualities which have come to be a bit too obvious in so many other plays written since the 1990s. Rather, Zimmerman’s vision jolts the audience with visceral fundamental cautions about the wages of greed, incest, sexual compulsion, and withholding one’s self in love, while paradoxically celebrating the joys of eros, discovering your true love, and finding riches gleaned unexpectedly from that most underrated of human qualities in a fallen veil of tears world: humility. The appeal of this play and its execution at the Guthrie are genuinely universal.
On the Guthrie’s signature thrust stage, Zimmerman has sublimely captured Ovid’s apprehension of how basic human feelings, desires, and circumstances might be transformed into forms other than human. A human can become a tree or a bird. A superb cast in multiple roles is guided by a narration chorus of three common laundresses. Their humble status contrasts the power of the gods who often think of humans as mortal playthings.
Raymond Fox evokes pure ego as King Midas, whose wish that all he touches turns to gold leads him to horrific realization about the dark side of materialism. This character’s folly, a folly which any one of us has or could succumb to, frames the playwright’s overview of her Ovidian journey. One may want to condemn Midas, but he’s probably like every single one of us at some point(s) in our lives.
The legend of Orpheus and his bride, Eurydice, who dies by snakebite and is sent to the Underworld, is given a standard Ovidian treatment as well as one inspired by poet Rainer Maria Rilke. One other non-Ovidian source is included as well: that of the Eros and Psyche tale from Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. It reminds us that sometimes contentment with the wonderful love we have now is better than doubting it. This production exudes wisdom, yet is never didactic.
The seamlessly impeccable cast also includes Steven Epp, Rodney Gardiner, Benjamin T. Ismail, Louise Lamson, Alex Moggridge, Sango Tajima, Lisa Tejero, Suzy Weller and Felicity Jones Latta, whose identical twin sister Charity Jones also shines on the other side of the facility on the Guthrie’s proscenium stage in Cyrano de Bergerac. Both women have exceptional speaking voices.
The profoundly simple, straightforward storytelling is wondrously matched by Daniel Ostling’s scenic design, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, and lighting by T. J. Gerckens. Sound designer Andre Pluess and composer Willy Schwarz blend into the whole to magical effect. You will probably want to see this production more than once.
All of this talent marvelously encapsulates a belief system that called on various gods rather than a single deity. It serves up much food for thought for those who want to mull over how this major western belief system was ultimately supplanted by another western belief system: Judeo-Christianity. Though both belief systems hold general values in common, they also have values at odds with one another.
The creative team shows us why Zimmerman’s script based on the translation by David R. Slavitt is rightly considered to be one of this young century’s best plays. Chances are, it is more than likely to remain in that zone for the next 81 years.
Note: this production contains frontal nudity and graphic portrayals of intense sexual moments.
Through May 19
Guthrie Theatre, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis