It‘s hard to argue with a theater perforM-ance as visually ravishing as adapter Mary Zimmerman’s staging of tales by the Roman poet Ovid, now at the Mark Taper Forum. But I‘d like to try.

Ovid was a storyteller, and so is Zimmerman, a recent MacArthur ”genius“ award recipient. Her approach is to employ narrators who narrate and actors who enact (and sometimes narrate as well) — a 10-member ensemble from Zimmerman’s Lookingglass Theater Company in Chicago. Their gestures tend to literalize the text. Hunger (Anjali Bhimani), for instance, slithers across the stage, hissing like a python, clamping herself onto the back of her victim. The god Poseidon (Barry Alan Levine) battles Ceyx (Erik Lochtefeld) as the mortal drowns at sea — and indeed, a large wading pool forms the centerpiece of Daniel Ostling‘s striking, Daliesque set. Aquatic bursts that soak the first few rows of the audience provide much of the playful tone, embellishing the stories’ thunderous emotional force with sprays of whimsy. Zimmerman finds ways to poke fun at the tales while remaining affectionate toward them.

The fun comes also from Mara Blumenfeld‘s costumes, which traverse a number of eras; from Andres Pluess and Ben Sussman’s very eclectic and often affecting sound design; and from the language itself, which veers from lyric poetry to contemporary, colloquial riffs and back again.

Ovid‘s Metamorphoses — 15 books of Latin verse spun from ancient Greek myths, providing the source material for much, though not all, of Zimmerman’s play — was completed in A.D. 8, the same year Emperor Augustus sentenced the poet to exile far from Rome. Had Ovid lived some 11 and a half centuries later, and a couple of thousand miles to the north, the Nazis might have condemned him as a ”decadent“ artist, a distinction reserved for those whose art dealt with ideas that had nothing to do with endorsing the politics of the Third Reich. In his own time, Ovid was something of an innocent, straddling a line between appeasing the emperor and speaking his own apolitical heart:

As long as Rome is the Eternal City

These lines shall echo from the lips of men,

As long as poetry speaks truth on Earth,

That immortality is mine to wear

–Metamorphoses, Book 15

Had Ovid‘s prior 14 books of verses flat-tered Augustus or his state with even half the intensity that this finale flatters the author, the scribe might have died content in Rome instead of frustrated in Tomis. Rather, Ovid’s legends depict a slate of X-rayed, tortured emotions — longing, grief, lust — wanton, wrenching torments in the midst of which characters (allegorized desires, really) vacillate before making brazen choices that are as self-damning as they are romantic, and are more often than not followed by metaphysical transformations. For instance, Echo, a nymph deprived by Juno of the power of speech, watches in anguish as her young lover, Narcissus, stands numbstruck on a riverbank, smitten by his own reflection in the water and letting his life drain into the form of the famous flower.

In Zimmerman‘s version, Echo has been deleted, thereby exorcising the love story’s pathos and replacing it with a mere cartoon about vanity: A soldier orders Narcissus (Doug Hara) away from the shore, placing a potted plant in his place. Sure, it gets a laugh — gambling on our knowledge of the legend while doing nothing to penetrate it.

Things fare better when young Myrrha (Bhimani), who can‘t contain her incestuous passion, poses as a prostitute in order to sneak into the bed of her own father (Chris Kipiniak). As she flees the monstrosity of her deed, the earth rises at her feet in midstep, while her arms sprout into branches.

Zimmerman is at her best staging the myth of Alcyon and Ceyx. The god Morpheus is appointed to impersonate the ghost of Ceyx (Lochtefeld), drowned at sea, in order to deliver the awful news in a dream to Ceyx’s long-suffering wife, Alcyon (Louise Lamson). On the heels of her receiving this agonizing news, Ceyx‘s body washes ashore in front of her. As Alcyon strips and dives to meet her lost husband, Ceyx’s corpse rises to meet her kiss, and the gods transform the couple into birds who soar over the breakers.

The poems, filled with such piquant beauty, are neither philosophical nor pedantic, neither tragic nor cautionary, but portraits of desire seen through a pre-Baroque magnifying glass. Moreover, like Ovid‘s Ars Amatoria, in which the poet offered instructions in seducing aristocratic matrons, they contain a Bacchic eroticism that partly explains why they so annoyed Augustus, who was working very hard, and without much success, to turn around the declining morals of Roman society. The erotic arts couldn’t have been very high on the emperor‘s agenda, no matter how much Ovid sang his praises.

After all, ”realism“ in the Roman theater of Augustus’ time could mean that a scene depicting adultery would involve copulation between two real-life adulterers. In a scene of execution, a criminal would be killed onstage. (Such entertainments make The Jerry Springer Show look like The Brady Bunch.) Furthermore, Augustus complained that Roman society, led by the arts, was becoming increasingly ”feminized,“ representing a breakdown of the social order that Augustus called ”chaos.“ No wonder Ovid‘s writings, along with those of most other pagans, virtually disappeared during Europe’s Christian Middle Ages, and remained absent even through much of the corseted 19th century, when nymphs and goddesses were represented in dreamy, modest poses in the art of Sir Frederic Leighton: bathed, well-fed and nearly sexless.

A parallel Puritan strain in our own culture gives Ovid‘s poetry a contemporary spin that isn’t lost on Mary Zimmerman. Indeed, to get to the heart of the stories, Zimmerman has deliberately chosen to decontextualize them, to pump up the anachronistic jokes (wearing tunics, her gods stand in the upper tiers of the set, puffing away on cigarettes) — in other words, to appeal to children, while telling the adults in the audience, ”See, this stuff is timeless.“

But I doubt she‘d lose any child’s interest were she to return Echo to the legend of Narcissus — or deliteralize some of the gestures or rarefy her tone, as she did in her transcendent The Arabian Nights at the Actors‘ Gang Theater a few years ago. Instead, Zimmerman offers us a few jokes, a torrent of passion, and stage images so powerful and beautiful they remain embossed in the memory — while the fine ensemble, and even the stories themselves, get washed away in sea foam.

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