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Gerald Carpenter: Ensemble Theatre Experiences ‘Metamorphoses’

Through April 13 in the New Victoria Theater, the Ensemble Theatre Company will stage Metamorphoses, adapted by Mary Zimmerman from the Ovid work of the same name, directed by Jonathan Fox, with choreography by Michael Jenkinson, original music by John Zalewskiand, and starring Brian Patrick Monahan, E. Bonnie Lewis, Brian Abraham, William Mitchell, Maya Lynne Robinson, Michael Cusimano and Chase O'Donnell.

Opening night is this Saturday, March 29.

The Ensemble Theatre says this of the production: "The play is staged as a series of vignettes, set in and around a forest pool, with a cast of nine portraying 40 characters. Winner of several Tony Awards, nominated for Best Play, Metamorphoses dramatizes several mythological tales — tales of the transformational power of love — through dreamlike imagery, haunting beauty, lyricism, music and stylized movement, intertwining comedy and tragedy along with the whimsical and reflective."

Zimmerman, who directed the original production (2001), received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, and in 2002 won the Tony for Best Director. In addition to Metamorphosis, she has adapted and directed The Jungle Book, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and The Odyssey. Clearly, she is presenting her tales within many frames of reference. Yet, surely, feminism is a major perspective, at least in Metamorphoses, and probably The Odyssey as well (recall Samuel Butler's proposal that the poem was written by a woman, and that much of it seems as if it is recounted from Penelope's point of view).

She certainly doesn't have to hijack Ovid, for he was already a feminist. He loved women, defended them and celebrated them in his poems. That was one of the main things that turned Caesar Augustus against him: his alleged undermining of the butch austerities of the Republic (which Augustus himself had done so much to destroy) with his soft, feminine Hellenistic decadence. Thus, Ovid was banished, in the same year he completed the Metamorphoses (8 C.E.), to a primitive settlement on the Black Sea, where he spent the last nine years of his life.

In the Introduction to his translation of the Metamorphoses (Viking Press, 1958), poet and scholar Horace Gregory says that "with instictive wit [Ovid] placed a heroine in the foreground of more than half his stories. His concern for the psychology of women was no less marked than in the poems of his friend, Propertius — or for that matter, than in the novels of such modern writers as [Gustave] Flaubert and Henry James ... ."

In the same vein, Gregory goes on to say that "to the Roman public [Ovid] became the successor to Euripides ..." and that "[e]lder critics of Greek tragedy (including Aristotle) were often enough disturbed by Euripides' concern for feminine psychology, and by the presence of children in his plays. To them it had seemed that the 'high seriousness' of Sophoclean tragedy, it's dignity, its profoundly religious passions had suffered a decadence, a decline through Euripides's interpretations ... . Truly enough, Euripides' plays ... also steered in the direction of paying more attention to domestic situations."

Nor does Zimmerman have to violate the integrity of Ovid's format to turn him into a dramatist. To be sure, as Gregory says, "his deepest concern was to show how the irrational forces of love took possession of women," but "his next concern — and here the artist in Ovid stepped forward — was to revive Greek drama in the form of an extended, often lyrical, dramatic monologue. The technic was both new and attractive — and in it one can see foreshadowings of the melodramatic monologues of Seneca's tragedies, and, through them, the soliloquies of William Shakespeare. One can almost say that Ovid invented the passionate 'aside,' the 'internal' monologue of drama and fiction." So, while Robert Browning may have coined the term "dramatic monologue," Ovid invented the thing itself.

Performances of Metamorphoses are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with shows at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 5, and at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 1. Tickets are $40 to $65. Three-play subscription tickets at a discounted price are on sale now. Youth tickets are available for those age 29 or younger for $20. Single tickets are available through the Ensemble Theatre box office at 805.965.5400 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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