Thursday, February 04, 2010

Metamorphoses

In Religion & Theater yesterday, we had students perform scenes from Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Groups had half an hour to prepare, but (so!) the staged readings had a real freshness about them. Few of the students knew the play - we hadn't asked them to read it, and gave each group only the scene it was charged with presenting. I don't imagine many more were more familiar with Ovid.

No matter, the scenes played out beautifully to an unusually appreciative audience. And as the students brought them to life, I was back in the Circle in the Square Theater, where I saw the original New York production in December 2002, with its large pool of water in which transformations happened, the cast narrating and acting out and commenting on a bunch of Ovid's stories in witty ways which then, suddenly, became heart-breakingly beautiful or sad. One laughed then wept, and wept more, at the fragility and pain and nobility of human life, of human embodiment and love.

The friend who took me to see Metamorphoses was one of many New Yorkers who had gone to see it in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it opened in New York just before that fateful day), many going several times. I felt the grief and pained solidarity of the city then, and felt it again seeing the scenes performed by our students.

Ceyx's plea, as his ship sinks, that at least his body be washed ashore to his beloved Ceyx (who knew he would die), must have resonated unbelievably at a time when so many beloveds' bodies had disappeared, most never to be recovered. (One thinks now also of all those still trapped in the rubble in Haiti, and their mourning families.) And the gods' mercy by which he is revived and they become a pair of sea birds. And the final scene, where two generous old people, Baucus and Philemon, are given a wish by the gods and ask: May I die when my love dies, may I live as long as my love, that is, may I live for ever... It gets me every time.

Zimmerman didn't write the piece for 9/11 of course (it was developed and premiered in Chicago). But this only makes it a clearer demonstration of the powerful ache and consolation of those tales, and of theater.

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