Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid

The current season has been crowded with events - Fräulein Maria, the Annie Baker Festival, Basil Twist - but something on the fringe may just steal the thunder from all these heavy hitters and turn out to be "the" show to have seen in 2010, the one people will still be talking about for years to come.

It's Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid, from the ever-intrepid Whistler in the Dark.  This tiny troupe has taken over the rough, unvarnished space of the Factory Theatre and transformed it into a kind of flying circus of the most evocative kind.  For just as Mary Zimmerman chose water as the basis of her famous adaptation of Metamorphoses, Whistler director Meg Taintor has turned to air for her version of Ted Hughes' rawly lyrical translation.  And with the simplest of means - two long skeins of shimmering silk suspended from the high rafters of the Factory space - she and her cast wreak a small, yet mysterious, miracle unlike anything I think Boston's fringe has ever seen.

But first, back to Ted Hughes.  And his version of Ovid (which some might argue isn't really Ovid).  The talented, and of course notorious (due to his infidelities leading, to some extent, to the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath) British poet has delivered a "translation" of a sample of the Metamorphoses that all but yanks Ovid into his own poetic domain.  While the Roman was known for urbanity and sophistication, Hughes is at his best when conjuring the rough magic of the natural world, as you can see in these lines from an early poem, "Hawk Roosting:"

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads.

These are not the rippling hexameters of Ovid - and what's more, Hughes is not all that interested in the Roman poet's theme of metamorphosis as the metaphysic of love, operating as a kind of cosmic principle.  Instead Hughes is obsessed with passion, both high and low, as a driver of transformation.  What hooks Hughes in Ovid is his repeated trope of ecstasy pushing people over the human/animal edge - or right through death into painful, but eternal, transfiguration.  That's not enough to encapsulate Ovid, but it's enough to provide a compelling evening of theatre, and the metamorphosis of the great Roman's masterwork into Hughes' natural tongue invigorates its verse with a compelling animal magic.  The resulting text, though it's so episodic it never achieves an arc, is always sexily gripping - at times even perversely so.

And what a brilliant stroke it was to take all this to the air!  The Whistlers - Erin Brehm, Danny Bryck, Jen O'Connor, Aimee Rose Ranger and Mac Young - are fearless (there's no net), and though I suppose the aerial tricks they play are basic ones, up close and personal they're tremendously impressive - as well as intensely evocative.  Indeed, director Taintor has been ceaselessly inventive in her imagery - from Narcissus's upside-down reflection, to Ariadne hanging from her own web, to Phaëton's fall from heaven - and from those simple strips of silk she conjures all manner of flowing, metamorphosing scenery (from sunlit forests to moonlit tents, above). And there are also individual performances to savor here, from Brehm's porcelain Atalanta to O'Connor's coldly determined Myrrha, to Bryck's terror-stricken Actaeon and Young's brash Phaëton. Alas, there's at least one gap in the production - its vocals; the Whistlers have adequate voices, but no great ones, and no one does full justice to the Hughes text. And while David McMullen's soundscape was always appropriate, I found myself often wishing for something closer to a through-composed score.

Indeed, what one walks away from Tales from Ovid thinking is, "This production deserves a longer, larger life!" Powerful as it is, one can only imagine what the Whistlers could do with more time and space, a full score, some projections - you name it. How wonderful, in the end, could such a metamorphosis become? I've no idea - but are you listening, Mass. Cultural Council, or ArtsEmerson, or the Boston Foundation, or any group searching for a local production to take to the next level - one that could eventually represent Boston nationally, or even internationally? Well, the search is over. This is it.


  1. As I just posted on FB, I agree thoroughly with this review of Whistler in the Dark's Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid at the Factory Theater. This is a beautiful & evocative show. You MUST go!

  2. If all Boston theatre was as visceral, daring and emotional as "Tales," then Boston would be a true artistic Hub. We've been wanting and waiting for Boston to happen, and if/when it does, it'll be groups like Whistler at the vanguard.