Metamorphoses At The Royall Tyler

Mary Zimmerman begins Metamorphoses, her dramatic adaptation of Ovid’s poem by the same name, with a revealing line. An actor recounting the myth of creation says that upon coming to earth, “humans kept their heads toward heaven, in pride . . . or maybe nostalgia.” Such offhand eloquence typifies Zimmerman’s approach to the script, which often suggests meaning beyond while referring obliquely to the explicit action of the play. In Peter Jack Tkatch’s production at the UVM theatre this month, actors often take Zimmerman’s poignant observations as command: this passage of narration, for example, inspires raised chins and sharp articulation; even the thespians’ self-conscious ego sometimes rivals that of their creator. For Zimmerman takes a post-Freudian approach in adapting the myths that has a mixed effect. As she has noted in interviews, the material attracted her because of its bold confrontation with the quintessential charge of life, the emotion striking and universal that comes from transformation: “change is inevitable . . . there is, in this world, always production through that loss . . . it’s a sad fact of life, but a true one, that even grief does end-can end.” She pays homage to the myths’ genius by uniting them in a common symbol, a pool, into which the characters plunge in the moment of change, as though delving symbolically into the collective human subconscious that she believes the stories reflect. Ironically, however, in celebrating the myths’ distillation of powerful emotion, Zimmerman obscures it. Crowded with more insinuation than a simple pond, the power of the stories becomes murky. The spear of hurt that Zimmerman forges from nine ancient tales of change glistens fetchingly, but its cumbersome gestures toward meaning blunt its stab. And hampered by a style strained with academe, narrating actors fall into a stilted and effortful performance, their emotional response to the stories stifled by Zimmerman’s insistent own. Zimmerman reveals explicitly the Freudian lens through which she views the myths in her frame for Phaeton’s tale of his father the sun, devising a therapy session in which he tells the tale from not a couch but a raft, his therapist nodding with bemusement and offering elaborate interpretations. In this scene, Zimmerman’s interpretive insights find voice in the therapist, whom she parodies with lines of elaborate interpretation. Of course, they also constitute a parody of Zimmerman herself, who even in her most sincere moments tends to over-intellectualize an emotion that would speak more powerfully and inspire better acting if it weren’t relentlessly attended by hermeneutics. Zimmerman makes her learning conspicuously felt (as the program notes, she is an academic), and her cerebral didacticism can be both patronizing and alienating to those who don’t share her position at the podium. At times, however, Zimmerman’s insights make for subtle and effective staging. By framing the myth of Myrrh with Pomona and Vertumnus’ tale, for example, she adds unobtrusive insight. Desperate to woo the elusive Pomona, Vertumnus disguises himself as an old woman and admonishes the girl about the danger of solitude with Myrrh’s story. Thus Aphrodite’s revenge against a girl resistant to suitors gains power in the implication that repressed lust results in incestuous impulses. Zimmerman makes her message unambiguous in Myrrh’s stark grief juxtaposed with Pomona’s happiness upon finally accepting Vertumnus. Appallingly anti-feminist, it is nonetheless a moving sequence, showing in succession love’s capacity for utter ruin and exuberant joy, something intimately familiar to us all. And such, ultimately, is the stuff of the play, love, and death. Played out, such high drama makes up the most satisfying moments of the play, both in eloquence of language and power of performance. Anna Elizabeth Greist plays an intense Aphrodite as she locks the head of Robyn Buchanan King as Myrrh in her arms, in a graphic embodiment of passion. While Myrrh moans with hysterical desire, Aphrodite’s bitter satisfaction replaces her seething. King makes Myrrh’s grief tangible in her agonized features, in her tortured plea to “let me step out of my own heart.” Zimmerman extends the metaphorical role of gods and goddesses in the classical pantheon to make them stand literally for the emotion they normally only suggest. This makes the passionate feeling aroused by these stories of death and love all the more deeply felt-a feeling that is not a mere abstraction but a physical embodiment, a person living and breathing and staring you in the face. Who in the grip of Aphrodite could fail to fall into the throes of passion? Zimmerman demands that actors become icons of the emotion they feel. And by and large, this cast fulfills the task: Evan Beamer makes Midas a wrenching portrait of grief as his daughter turns to gold in his arms; Colleen Horan as Alcyone and Adam Gingo as Cyrix create a moving picture of transmuting sorrow; King again as Hunger clings violently to her atheistic victim Eurysichthon (Gingo), rendering him a groveling cannibal. “The godless are always hungry,” Zimmerman comments wryly. One of the best moments of the play, however, is one of tranquility. Will Todisco never fails to amuse in any of his comic roles, but one simple interlude in which he sits contemplating the water affirms his talent. Gazing with untouchable concentration into the light-lined waves, he endows the water with mystery, and an almost sacred power. Just as important as the actors’ performance to this scene and many others in this atmospheric play is the lighting, masterfully designed by John B. Forbes. In one scene, a cool blue light pricks the ripples in the pool with a melancholy shimmer, silhouetting the players and creating a melancholic aura. The lighting is also particularly effective in the myth of Cupid and Psyche; a warm glow, red as a valentine and just as gaudily romantic, blooms around Eros as he enters. The dim light makes the glow of Psyche’s candelabra, by which she finally beholds her lover, all the more dramatic. Metamorphoses will run at the Royall Tyler Theatre through November 23rd, with evening performances beginning at 7:30 Wednesday through Sunday and matinees on the weekend.