‘Myths Morph Into Intriguing Theater

15 September 2003 at 9:00 am (Press, Theatre) (, , , , , , )

by Renee Valois, Special to the Pioneer Press

Most best-selling novels are forgotten a generation or two after their debut. But the myths of ancient Greece are still famous thousands of years after they were first uttered. Some say that’s because their universal archetypes make them eternally relevant.

No doubt the overdramatic plots are a big reason for their enduring popularity, since it would be hard to find a collection of stories filled with more passion and violence, including, rape, murder, cannibalism and people being torn limb from limb.

Now Pangea World Theater has added its own mark to a script by Supple and Read that was adapted from English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’ adaptation of the Roman poet Ovid’s adaptations of the myths in his Metamorphoses. In other words, this is heavily transmuted material, which is apropos given that the theme of the stories is transformation.

However, there can be difficulties in converting poetry into theater. Here, the scriptwriters have ignored the traditional adage to “show, not tell.” Characters spend a lot of time talking about their feelings before acting on them. There is also little dialogue, since the stories are mostly narrated.

Often a character will help tell her own story — in the third person. This makes portions of the show drag, giving it a leisurely feel strangely at odds with compelling moments of profound horror and violence.

On the plus side, director Dipankar Mukherjee takes some risks that make for an intriguing piece of theater. The production begins with singing and a sense of ceremony as candles are lit on the sides of the stage.

Diverse actor genders, races, body shapes and accents weave colorful threads into the tapestry of tales, and the cast occasionally adds lines of dialogue in different languages (which are not translated). Male and female actors sometimes play opposite genders, for instance, King Midas is played by a woman and the nymph Echo is played by a man.

The dozen cast members heighten the drama in a chorus not of words but of gestures. The moving sculpture of their bodies illuminates the tales.

When Midas discovers his mistake in wishing everything he touches will turn to gold, the cast in the shadows wrap themselves in skeins of metallic gold material. One man completely encircles his head until it’s a faceless blob. The symbolism is unmistakable.

A mythic feel is conveyed by little touches, such as glitter on the faces of the cast and an undulating flute that hauntingly signals transitions between stories along with the actors’ simultaneous exhalations — an audible “whoosh” of change.

There is some fine acting in the dozen-strong ensemble, with members all playing multiple roles, but there is also some over-the-top emoting. Given that the stories deal with such visceral events, that may not be a bad thing.

“Tales from Ovid” is an ambitious piece of theater that largely succeeds in making myths vivid; it is more unsettling to see incest and dismemberment acted out than merely to read about it. But it would have been a stronger play had the scriptwriters been less faithful to Hughes’ poetry and more faithful to the power of the original myths.

What: “Tales From Ovid” by Pangea World Theater
Where: The Playwrights’ Center
When: Thurs.-Sun. through Sept. 28
Tickets: $13 advance, $15 at door, $10 students/seniors
Information: 612-203-1088

Capsule: An interesting enactment of violent myths that is alternately dampened by long poetic monologues and enlivened by creative touches and a colorful cast.

Renee Valois is a freelance critic. Originally printed in St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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