Last week, as we approached the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, my wife and I drove up to Washington to a noon performance of Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s watery interpretation of Ovid’s Greek and Roman myths. Way back in December of 2001, only three months after 9/11, I had made one of my biannual pilgrimages to New York to catch up on theatre. Among the six plays I saw that week was Metamorphoses. In looking back at my theatre journal at the time, I found I had called it funny, violent, sexy, meaningful, tear-producing, and awe-inspiring. I judged it nicely acted and beautifully lit on a brilliantly created stage: a magnificent 27-foot wide pool of black water, squeezed into Second Stage’s tiny upstairs off-Broadway Theater. It sounds shallow now (the judgment, not the pool), but it was anything but. I wrote, “Gods and men gracefully slipped into and out of the water, as if pushed from the mud by the life force itself.” I’ve been raving about it ever since, and this was our only opportunity to see this rare Arena Stage/Looking Glass Theatre revival. We were not to be deterred by a house full of texting, giggling, gum-cracking school groups, who for the most part (give them credit) did finally settle down to appreciate the power of what they were watching.
I find it impossible to separate my reponses to Metamorphoses from the contexts in which I saw both performances. We in the audience that Sunday afternoon twelve years ago were sorely in need of comforting. That morning, I had been paying my respects at the ruins of the World Trade Center, where the stench of death and rusty smoke still lingered in the air three months after the attack. Thousands of notes from children and families and friends were pinned up everywhere, on trees and buildings and chain link fences. They spoke of loss, and pain, and regret, and life, and the will to go on. And especially they spoke of love.
Then, as I walked back uptown from Ground Zero, I remember remarking how the city itself seemed deep in thought. People walked more slowly, frequently making eye-contact and nodding in passing. There was little or no elbowing and pushing by. In uncharacteristic solidarity, New Yorkers spoke openly to strangers in the street, and hugged, and shook hands. Although mourning was clearly to be read on the faces I passed on the sidewalks, it was already matched by expressions of grim determination and the spirit of recovery. “I share your pain. I understand,” they seemed to say. “But we’ll get past this. We will not stay hurt for long.“
Inside the theater itself, the mood was much the same. New Yorkers were beginning to recover from the immediate shock of the catastrophe following weeks of public inability to deal with reality, never mind art. It was a time when we all questioned the nature of man. What good are our reasoning powers when they fail us to such extremes? And what does it mean to be human, to love, and to die? We were a quiet but courteous audience, seeking a place of safety in the dark, eager to see just who and what we were, and what might happen next. So we were all gradually coming back to the theatre,
A little over a year after the deaths of 2,777 innocent people and the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks (more then than at Pearl Harbor), we began the Iraq War under false pretenses, sweeping past the powers of reason in the president, the congress and the electorate alike. It was a war that killed over 4,000 American soldiers, and by some estimates up to a million Iraqi civilians … mostly after President Bush stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to declare “Mission Accomplished!”
That particular moment still reminds me of Felicia Hemans’ 19th century poem, “Casabianca,” that too many of us were traditionally forced to memorize in grade school: “The boy stood on the burning deck/ Whence all but he had fled./ The flame that lit the battle’s wreck / Shone round him o’er the dead./ Yet beautiful and bright he stood, / As born to rule the storm:/ A creature of heroic blood,/ A proud, though childlike form.” God I hated that poem: the kid gets blown to smithereens in an earlier middle-eastern conflict. (“The more things change …”)
Back to the present: The Iraqi war may also have left over 300,000 American soldiers with traumatic brain injury, some limbless, and some homeless. The killing continues in Afghanistan, is being renewed in Iraq, and is spilling on our American streets and in our schools, as we seemingly arm for war with each other. All of it defies both compassion and reason, the two traits we humans are most proud of.
So I came back to Metamorphoses after a twelve year hiatus with overwhelming and unresolved questions: Is a human being a rational animal after all, and if so, can we put to any sensible use our powers of reason? This is of course the stuff of myth and archetype. Human behavior and ignorance of our gods have not changed one whit since Homer and Ovid.
One of the great values of all mythology is to establish an ordered hierarchy in our universe, and to give ourselves a familiar place in it. No matter how often men and gods may screw up, or how much chaos they may create, our responses are familiar and disturbing: fear, anger, grief, joy, longing, agony, jealousy, love, loss, death. In human history on this planet, thus it has always been. It is both disturbing and strangely comforting to be reminded that we are not going through it all alone, that we all share the same responses, hard as they may be to accept.
The first of the ten tales that make up Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is a creation myth, offering up a stable and beautiful universe … that is until someone cuts down the wrong tree and incurs the wrath of the gods. And we’re off into trickery and chaos: King Midas’s greed turns his daughter into solid gold, and with one backward look the doubting Orpheus damns his beloved Eurydice to Hell. The spoiled and bull-headed Phaeton, son of Apollo, when finally permitted to drive his father’s chariot of fire, flies too close and “burns up the earth.” Narcissus, so enamored of his own reflection in a pool, is forever frozen solid. There is a happier ending for Psyche and Eros (who despite the script requirement was somewhat compromised by a discreet loin cloth for this performance, no doubt in deference to the school audiences). Their story of eternal love was not in Ovid’s poem, but Zimmerman included it in her script because she liked it. In the last story, we are confronted by the gods Zeus and Hermes, disguised as beggars in order to wander the earth and find what it feels like to be human. Finally welcomed and fed by a loving elderly couple, the gods reveal themselves and grant them their one wish: to die together in each other’s arms. The lovers are then transformed into trees with intertwining branches. And oh yes, Midas finally finds the magic well so that his daughter may resume her life. Yes, there is goodness in man, and kindness in the gods, but not without the dispensing of considerable agony, however well-intentioned, and for whatever “reason.” Best of all, the state of the universe is portrayed with a considerable sense of humor. And it seems we are better able to find our true place in it with a good belly laugh.
If anything, the play is better now than it was twelve years ago. Metamorphosis is about change, and all ten tales are the archetypes of change, usually in defiance of expectation. This production was revived back in Chicago last fall, again directed by Zimmerman herself, with many of the original cast members. But we’ve all changed. I’ve changed. The country has changed. We’ve aged and matured, and been colored by the world. We each read new meanings into it.
The setting too has changed. At the Arena, they’ve built the largest pool of water yet, and surrounded it by boardwalk. Why water? Why go to all that trouble and enormous expense to risk electrical hazards, wrinkled skin, mold, and slippery surfaces? I’ve read little about it in Zimmerman’s own comments, other than that the Greeks and Romans were so rooted in maritime culture. But this water is so much more than the sea. It functions as a place of birth, death and love. It is storm, and River Styx, and tears, and rain, and graveyard, and hindrance, and playground. And most of all, its black reflective surface suggests a kind of primaeval ooze from which all life originates. It’s an element to be reckoned with. And of course it’s all surrounded on four sides by audience (the first two rows of which can get very wet), so that part of theimagery is the audience response across the pool.
Still, beyond the inventive concept and staging, the play has a deceptively simple structure: ten archetypical tales based very loosely on Ovid’s poem, some narrated presentationally, some acted out. In contemporary theatre, it’s related to Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, and could be a cousin to Godspell, and now to Peter and the Starcatcher … but it is both visually and dramatically so much richer. Essentially, it’s a collection of beautiful images, both classic and distorted, as if a Rubens had been messed with by a Magritte or a Dali or an M.C. Escher. In the round, the images are more difficult to control than in a front-on proscenium setting, but they are no less beautiful, and if anything the graceful and playful movements add depth to the intentional contradictions.
Speaking of Magritte, I can’t leave this entry without noting a magical moment of my own which set the tone for the whole production before it even began. The set included several large panels hung strategically over the stage, painted bright sky-blue, and dotted with white cotton-ball clouds. My wife and I sat in the second row at one end of the stage. Directly opposite and above us, across the stage, was a double-door to the outside, kept open until curtain time. All we could see through the door was nature’s own bright blue sky, dotted with cotton-ball clouds dead-on identical to those on the painted panels. Unbelievable! It was a very, very spooky coming-together of art and the beauty of the real world. The image would have been neither seen nor noticed by the 90% of the audience who did not have our vantage point, nor would it have been apparent except at a rare noon performance on a beautiful day. So I doubt it could have been intentional. Although, who knows? Those enterprising designers at Arena might have gray panels in store for rainy days.
What a magical play and a magical production! If I’m still around when Mary Zimmerman pulls it back out of moth balls in another ten years, I’ll be there. It remains on my top 25 list of most memorable play-going experiences