Commentary Magazine


Cheering "Metamorphoses"

In London, theatergoers who have become weary with the leftish works of Harold Pinter, Cheryl Churchill, David Hare, and their like can often turn to Tom Stoppard for relief. That option is usually unavailable in New York, where the cultural perspective is, if anything, even more depressingly narrow. But this past season has offered an exception.

Metamorphoses, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, and still playing at the Circle in the Square, an off-Broadway theater in the Times Square area, has given New Yorkers an alternative. Not only does this work vary the American theater’s customary viewpoint, but it puts its audience in touch with some of the deepest resources of Western civilization. Little else in the neighborhood even tries.

“I ask the help of the gods,” the first “narrator” of Metamorphoses begins. “Let me speak, better than I know how.” For the next 94 minutes, ten stories adapted by Zimmerman from the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) are presented for our contemplation and delight—tales of men and women, gods and goddesses, birds, animals, flowers, trees and, not incidentally, the cosmos. Some of the stories, like Orpheus’ failed attempt to rescue his beloved Eurydice from Hades, or Phaeton’s smash-up in his father Apollo’s sun-chariot, are fairly familiar even today. Others, such as the tale of Erysichthon, who is cursed by Ceres with a hunger so intense he ends up consuming his own body, are less so. Familiar or not, they are, deservedly, a smash hit in New York as they were in earlier productions in Chicago, Seattle, Berkeley, and Los Angeles.

Zimmerman, forty-one, and the winner of a 2002 Tony award for her direction of Metamorphoses, has a reputation as one of the country’s most promising playwrights and directors, with devoted audiences in the cities where her works are regularly seen. These include such adaptations as The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Arabian Nights, The Odyssey, and Journey to the West, taken from a 16th-century Chinese-Buddhist epic. Her productions make use of the story-theater techniques developed at Northwestern University by Robert Breen and Frank Galati, the latter of whom was Zimmerman’s teacher, as well as other, familiar devices of modernist theater. What distinguishes their use in Metamorphoses is Zimmerman’s sure-footedness, and the ends to which she puts those techniques—ends that are different both from those of the commercial theater and from most of what passes for “serious” drama.

Almost the entire playing area of Metamorphoses consists of a shallow 27-foot pool filled with water and surrounded by a narrow walkway. The actors float, splash, drown, stomp, and wade in the water, which thus serves as both set and prop. As startling as the pool appears when one first enters the theater, it is not a gimmick, and by the end of the performance it seems entirely appropriate. Of course, the psychological and literary significance of water is well known; but for Zimmerman, the water (like the lighting) is also an expressive element that deepens the meaning of the stories themselves. In one, for instance, a ship we see in miniature embarking on calm seas later flounders in a tempest after it has “reached the point of no return, with as much blue water astern as remained ahead.”

The stories themselves are told by an ensemble of ten actors, each of whom slips in and out of multiple roles, sometimes performing as a character, sometimes describing in the third person what his character is doing, sometimes standing outside the action and serving as a narrator. The costumes are mostly based on our notions of what ancient Greek and other archaic peoples wore, although—since the stories are timeless—some are more contemporary. Thus, Phaeton wears bright yellow swim-trunks as he floats on a bright yellow inflated air mattress and adjusts his Ray-Bans while explaining to his analyst the difficulties he has had with the sun as his father; his psychobabble-spouting female shrink wears a stylish black pant suit.

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Much of what is wonderful about Metamorphoses lies in what it is not. The very first metamorphosis, told as a prologue, concerns the creation of the world from chaos, when “nature was all the same.” It takes a god—Zeus—to create the order out of which the sun and moon, land and sea, are put in their proper places; but in this “paradise,” as the god himself declares, “one thing was lacking: words.” And so “man was born, he was born that he might talk.” But what kind of talk? Zimmerman’s script honors the responsibility of words to complete the world, and her cast respects those words by speaking them clearly and with precise intentions. Unlike in much new theater, there is no smut, no one is mush-mouthed, and dialogue is not wallpaper.

Nor is Metamorphoses “transgressive,” although that is not for lack of material. In one story, the virgin Myrrha is punished for having ignored Aphrodite by being seized with a passion for her own father, Cinyras. She debates with herself what to do: “O gods, I pray you, keep me decent,” but then, alternately, “Devotion cannot condemn such love as crime.” Finally, enlisting the aid of her old nursemaid, she goes to Cinyras’ bedroom at night while her mother is away and he has been blindfolded. But after several nights of terrific sex, he insists on seeing her. His instinct, as soon as he takes off the blindfold, is to kill his daughter. She flees, crying: “Gods, I pray you, change me; make me something else, transform me entirely; let me step out of my own heart.” Several possible endings of the story are given, but the one we are left with is that Myrrha dissolves into tears: she steps into a shimmering stream and “her body melted.” In Zimmerman’s staging, the actress slowly disappears beneath the surface of the pool.

A tale, then, of transgression, but not in the least transgressive. The characters, the narrator, Zimmerman, the audience—all know that what Myrrha and Cinyras did cannot be allowed and must be punished. That Aphrodite is cruel in afflicting Myrrha says something about the nature of passionate love—which the Greeks considered a disease that robbed one of reason and self-control—but in no way exculpates its unfortunate bearer. That is tough, but if Myrrha were to be excused because she is a “victim,” she would lose her dignity and her right to our respect. She chose, and she chose wrong. As we are reminded again and again in Metamorphoses, the reason the ancient myths and the classic fairytales are part of our culture is that they look at life unblinkered.

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To appreciate the pitfalls Zimmerman has triumphantly avoided in this play, it might help to digress for a moment and consider another recent play that happens to be based on an ancient text: Charles Mee’s True Love. Mee, a historian who knows the Greek plays well, has said that he likes to take a classic text, “smash it to ruins, and then atop its ruined structure . . . write a new play.” He is a considerable figure in magazines devoted to new drama, and True Love‘s New York production got much favorable press from critics who favor edgy, avant-garde, postmodern, transgressive art, although it lasted only a little while after its opening. (And it was a small theater.)

True Love is based on Hippolytus, Euripedes’ version of the myth in which, like Myrrha, the youth Hippolytus disregards Aphrodite. He is punished by having his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. To Theseus, his father, Phaedra then asserts that the boy was trying to seduce her, and when Theseus prays to Poseidon to punish him, Hippolytus is destroyed.

“Relations,” Mee has written, “are twisted. Any form of love is true because it’s the only kind of love they—the characters—are capable of.” One would like to know exactly what Mee means by “true,” but on the evidence of True Love he probably means something like “okay.”

Hippolytus is given a contemporary setting in a grungy auto-repair garage with an old-model Dodge on stage. Characters come and go—Hippolytus is on a skateboard—and there is a live rock band on stage, a device first seen 40-odd years ago in the Living Theater production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection. Since the plot has been pretty well smashed to incomprehensibility, what the characters mainly do is sit around the garage and talk. Much of this talk is funny, but nearly all of it is about what they variously call “sex” or “love.” Their case histories are grotesque and thus, in the end, sentimental. (One of the characters shows us how he gets off by attaching jumper cables from the battery of the Dodge to his genitals.)

Mee tries very hard to get us to like these people and to approve of their romantic expedients. Resorting to audience participation, a convention of modern theater, he gives us one character whose form of sexual expression is to have someone smash a pie in his face and then another pie in his groin. At one point this character comes off the stage, picks a member of the audience to go back with him, and after some ad-libbed business gets himself pied. The ensuing laughter and applause ratify the audience’s complicity in the character’s kinky sex: we are all transgressive now.

A neat trick, but a cheap one. What if the member of the audience had been asked to do something more clearly sexual—to share a French kiss, or to have his or her genitals touched? There is something disingenuous about trying to get approbation for the perverse in this way. Like so much else in the arts today, Mee’s work is “interesting” without being in the least convincing.

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Mary Zimmerman would also seem to be at odds with Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America, who believes that “What’s wrong with the way we do theater in general [is] . . . not enough politics.” (That may be why Kushner’s plays are so tedious.) In Metamorphoses, there is no politicking, no hectoring; there are no causes. The very first story we are told is that of King Midas. In the hands of any neo-Brechtian, he would certainly be used to illustrate the evils of contemporary capitalism. Instead, when he arrives on Zimmerman’s stage dressed as a 19th-century plutocrat and lets us know that “money is a good thing,” we learn that wealth is an indispensable part of his story, but it is his story as an individual that compels our attention.

The segment ends when Midas’s young daughter unknowingly jumps on him to give him a hug and turns to gold. As her rigid body falls to earth, Midas, who had chided her for annoying him with her games, is no longer a king—“net worth: 100 billion”—but a father, crushed. The tone, playful until the moment the girl leaps, turns instantly tragic, and the audience shudders. Midas’s fate is not a political reckoning; he had been forewarned when he asked the god Bacchus to grant him his wish (“That’s a really, really bad idea,” says Bacchus), and he suffers for it. But the innocent daughter suffers, too. Once again, although the story is literally fabulous, we feel unmistakably that this is how life is.

The absence of ideological politics means that Zimmerman is also not intimidated by the demands of contemporary feminism. In one of the ten stories, Vertumnus disguises himself as an old woman so he can continue his wooing of Pomona by assuring her that “A lover is what you need to make yourself complete as a woman.” Although the narrator informs us that “None of this was working,” neither does the remark make the self-possessed Pomona indignant She knows who is in the wig and dress, and accepts it for the male “line” that it is; the wooing continues to its successful conclusion.

In still another story, Psyche disobeys Eros’s instructions not to look at him, and drops some hot wax from her candle on him as he sleeps. He punishes her.

Q: What’s going to happen to her now?

A: She’s going to suffer.

Q: And?

A: She’s going to suffer.

Q: And?

A: She’s going to suffer.

Psyche does suffer, but in the end she is rewarded for her endurance by being made immortal. Her marriage to Eros, we are assured, “will last forever.”

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Because she is willing to put herself at the service of her material, Zimmerman gets her stories right. Her work is spare and simple, frequently playful, but at the end of each tale, when a transformation takes place, it is not just the brilliant stagecraft or the actors’ technique that makes the audience respond. What elicits consent, what makes the work “click,” is the felt rightness of the outcome, which is another way of saying that the weight of the culture is behind it.

When Metamorphoses opened in New York shortly after the World Trade Center attack, audiences responded with open emotion to the way it confronted the ineluctable. One of the things Mohammed Atta and his crew demolished on September 11 was a lot of relativist cant, and it may be that, in the aftermath, New Yorkers were better able to hear this work that came to them from the core of a culture they now knew they needed. They took it as balm. Even today, nothing one sees happening on Zimmerman’s stage is any more unbelievable than that the World Trade Center should have been metamorphosed from twin towers of steel and glass to two insubstantial beams of light.

In the last of the tales, the elderly couple Baucis and Philemon are granted a wish because of their hospitality to the gods. They wish that, since they have loved each other their entire lives, they will die at the same moment. When the moment comes, they embrace, sprout leaves and bark, and are turned into trees. As this is happening in the middle of the pool, the rest of the cast surrounds them and whispers.

All: Let me die the moment
    my love dies.
Narrator: They whisper:
All: Let me not outlive my
    own capacity to love.
Narrator: They whisper:
All: Let me die still loving,
    and so, never die.

Reciting these lines, the cast launches glass vessels with lit candles in them that float on the water. The lights come down.

It is a beautiful moment, this transformation out of the human condition; but it is also not quite the last. At the end of the Midas episode that has begun the performance, after his daughter has been turned to gold, Midas pleads to have his wish removed. Bacchus says he cannot do that, but that Midas should “walk as far as the ends of the earth and search there for a pool of water that holds the stars at night. Wash . . . in it, and there is a chance that everything will be restored.” Now, as the lights dim on the Baucis and Philemon episode and the candles float in the darkening pool, a distracted Midas wanders on, still carrying his daughter’s golden jumprope.

Midas kneels at the end of the pool, drops the rope in the water, and dips his hands to wash his face. At that moment his daughter appears, restored. For Zimmerman, for Ovid, for the ancient crones who first told this story around a fire, the final transformation is not out of the human condition but when we are made human.

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