Whistler in the Dark explores the myth in 'Tales from Ovid'

November 16 [Fri], 2012, 11:01
When old tales are re-imagined with artistic integrity, important truths come back to life. Whistler in the Dark’s vigorous production of “Tales from Ovid,” which opened Nov. 8 evening at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box in the Paramount Center, takes the classical Roman tales of change and tragedy and molds them into a modern masterpiece.

Director Meg Taintor’s ambitious vision for English poet Ted Hughes’ translations includes not just a robust articulation of his seamless texts, but incidental music and aerial wizardry as well. All of it blends into a compelling addition to ArtsEmerson’s 2012-13 season.

Any mention of Ted Hughes invokes his notorious personal life. His wife, the great poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide in 1963 during a period of estrangement, and Hughes received much of the blame. His lover, Assia Wevill, also killed herself, in 1969, murdering their 4-year-old daughter as well.

Hughes life was permanently darkened by these tragic events: “Everything I do is posthumous,” he wrote after Plath’s death.

His career was not without successes, however. He was England’s poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998, and greatly respected for his verse, criticism and plays. “Tales from Ovid” was a late work, published in 1997, and was praised for its fresh language. It revisits Hughes’ lifelong intellectual concern: myth. Not myth in the “it’s not true, that’s a myth,” sense, but myth as a search for origins.

Hughes makes Ovid into Hughes. He translated two dozen stories from “Metamorphosis,” from more than 20 dozen, and they are among the most arresting and violent, much like Hughes’ own nature poetry. The translations lend themselves marvelously to stage adaptation, and Whistler in the Dark has brilliantly realized both Ovid’s mythology, and Hughes’ disturbing interpretation of that mythology.

An ensemble of four - Danny Bryck, Jen O’Connor, Aimee Rose Ranger, and Mac Young - take the small stage at the Jackie and don’t leave for two hours. Accompanied by violinist and sometime actor Shaw Pong Liu, they work through the stories on a bare set with only two sets of parallel curtains hanging from the ceiling. Each of the quartet of actors is acrobatic and physically gifted, and occasionally climb the curtains (aerial silks they are called), twisting, sitting, and falling from above the audience.

But the acrobatics remain only part of Taintor’s storytelling: they add to the visual theatrics without detracting from the energy of the text. Some savage, some poignant, each of the dozen stories - Phaeton and the chariot, Echo and Narcissus, Pygmalion, Juno’s revenge on Semele, among others - stand alone. It is the troupe’s great achievement that it builds dramatic momentum into “Tales from Ovid,” mounting almost exhaustively to the blood-curdling tale of Tereus, Philomela and Procne.

The nuanced graces of this production, not the astounding gymnastics, make it successful. As only one example, the coy mirroring and vocal repetitions of the Echo and Narcissus tale turn myth into love story, with much laughter - some in nervous self-recognition, it seemed - from the audience.

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