Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tales from Ovid

Silky perversity in Tales from Ovid. Photo by Jenni Wylie.

I think what's most remarkable about the ArtsEmerson production of Whistler in the Dark's Tales from Ovid (through this weekend only) is that it has happened at all.  That the production has retained most of its intensity and muscular poetry in its new setting is just an added bonus - the real news is that the powers that be have actually deigned to notice a fringe troupe, and have elevated it to what counts as the local "big time."  Which frankly counts as a watershed.

To be fair, similar opportunities have opened up for Boston writers, like Melinda Lopez and Kirsten Greenidge, who have both won full productions at the Huntington.  But now another wall in Boston's cultural compartmentalization - which only reflects the way the pillars of our community generally face New York - has at last fallen, thanks to Bob Orchard's willingness to take a risk on the city's artists in a way none of his predecessors or current peers has been willing to do.

Of course I've long identified, and been identified, with Whistler - I was the first critic to notice them, years ago when I wrote for the Globe, when I raved over what I later learned was their very first show (the great Howard Barker's The Possibilities).  And I've followed them since (sometimes to theatres where I was the only audience member, and they put on the show just for me). And of course I banged the drum loudly for Tales from Ovid two years ago, so I couldn't agree more with Mr. Orchard's decision to program it - and it's also nice to see the production counts as one of the best productions at ArtsEmerson so far this season; the local kids have indeed made good.

Although (as always at the Hub Review) a few caveats do apply.  Director Meg Taintor's vision is perhaps not quite as gripping this time around as it was in its original, grittier incarnation at the Factory Theatre.  There was something about the sheer verticality of that rough space (much of the show occurs overhead, on silks) that gave the show's aerial stunts a visceral punch that's somehow lacking here (don't worry, though, those of you who dig physical danger - the Whistlers do seem to be risking their necks).

And Taintor has understandably wanted to flesh out her production with additional tales from her source - but the very leanness of the pithy original (which was all muscle) likewise gave it a startling charge that it takes longer for the performers to generate here.  Don't worry, they do - the production becomes more and more absorbing as it proceeds; and all the "greatest hits" of the original return - ingenious imagery that includes Arachne weaving a web above our heads, Narcissus encountering his own reflection dangling upside-down, Actaeon sprouting antlers before our horrified eyes, and Phaëton falling headlong from the chariot of the sun.

Yeah, it's good stuff - raw and smart and bracing, the way all the best Whistler shows are.  Although, just btw, it's almost nothing like Ovid - the tone is all Ted Hughes, the British poet laureate who is perhaps most famous as the betrayer of Sylvia Plath, and who "translated" the urbanely balanced Latin original into his own wounded, masculine idiom - which to be fair may be closer to the earlier Greek - where calm cruelty and terrible transformation are the order of the day.  (Even when one of these stories does end sweetly, like Atalanta's, Hughes is careful to add a grotesque epilogue.)

But you know what?  Pain makes great theatre.  Still, be warned: the Whistlers set about this savagery with such deadpan alacrity that you may be somewhat taken aback by their ruthlessness.  People looked stunned when poor Philomele's tongue was torn from her mouth, or when Actaeon was ripped to shreds by his own hounds (or when incest suddenly loomed);  somehow the Whistlers have a way of conveying these traumas with a force that's all the more potent for being entirely poetic.

Too bad they still don't quite convey the vocal poetry of either Ovid or Hughes - my biggest complaint about the first version was the voice work - and here, clearly only Danny Bryck has had the training to convey the beauty of his lines (without tipping over into grandiosity).  Happily, the musical accompaniment has been expanded, and improved, greatly - Shaw Pong Liu's violin (and other percussive effects) are now beautifully integrated into the action.

Of course the poetry is still there - it's just visual now.  It still has the power to imprint your memory, though.  I'll never forget Bryck's desperate death as Actaeon, or Aimee Rose Ranger's delightfully cool Atalanta, or the eagerness of Mac Young's Phaëton as he hauled his way up to the sun, hand over hand, or the deadly calm of Jen O'Connor's perversity as Myrrha.  These actors are all operating brilliantly, and on the edge of palpable physical risk (much of the performance is like a dance, in fact - only a dance in which if you put one foot wrong, you could fall ten feet).  That risk parallels the Whistlers' artistic wager with this production, which has paid off in a way which I can only hope will at last open a door to a wider audience for other talents on Boston's fringe.

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