The Spirit of Ovid Looms over Bauer Theatre


Theatre Antigonish presents an excellent production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses

The spirit of Ovid loomed in Bauer Theatre starting November 8, the opening night of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. A six-inch deep center-stage pool is host of Narcissus’ self-gaze, Phaethon’s hilarious conversation with a therapist and the powerful scenes involving Midas among Zimmerman’s nine myths inspired from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and others who wrote about Metamorphoses such as Rainer Maria Rilke. About a hundred people in attendance rose for a standing ovation after the surprise ending on opening night. 

There is no doubt that changing a work from poetry to theatre changes the experience of it. Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is not a staging of Ovid’s literary triumph, as she goes beyond changing the medium through which Ovid’s saga is enjoyed. Rather, Zimmerman’s production borrows characters and stories from Ovid to create a more focused story about the changing power of love.

The tale unfolded on stage by Zimmerman is far from the one riddled by Ovid, though they are not entirely disconnected. In both fables, King Midas’ judgement is clouded by his desire for wealth. He similarly encounters a follower of Bacchus, takes care of the man, and is rewarded by the god with the power to turn all things to gold. This however, is where the two depictions part ways. There are many minor differences. As an example, Ovid’s Midas is an old drinking friend of Silenus, “When Midas saw the old man was Silenus - They had been filthy drunken good old friends - He ordered up a dozen rounds of drinks - Then more and more, and drank ten days and nights” (Ovid, 290). Zimmerman’s Midas does not know Silenus, but only speaks with him out of the possible prospect of profiting on the key to immortality, “Go on. Is it an animal? Even better if it’s an animal, we could breed them here. My god, the millions!” 

What is more important though, is how tragedy strikes. In Ovid’s version, Midas uses his wealth to order a feast but comes to the sad realization that he is unable to satisfy his most basic need to eat, “The feast laid out before him, he went hungry - And though his throat burned dry, no drink could wet it - By his own choice gold had become his torture” (Ovid, 291). Zimmerman morphs the misfortune entirely. Midas is surprised by his daughter who leaps into his arms and is, as his new power demands, turned to gold. Ovid’s honeyed words never even make mention of a daughter, or any family of the king for that matter, excluding a reference to Bacchus as, “His foster child in drink” (Ovid, 290). After their respective tribulations, the two writers similarly display a remorseful Midas who appeals to Bacchus’ pity and asks that he be freed of his once-desired condition. 

In each case, Midas is granted this wish by washing his hands in faraway waters. Ovid, not often being one to end a story on a happy note, ensures that the once-greedy king’s luck soon runs out. The next punishment Ovid envisions for Midas, Apollo changing the king’s ears into those of an ass, is entirely absent from Zimmerman’s interpretation. She opts to end the story of the king, and indeed the entire play, on a hopeful note. After a long absence from the stage, Midas returns to the spotlight. The king arrives at the faraway waters in the pool, and after washing his hands as instructed, he is freed from his gift-turned-curse and reunited with his daughter.

For Zimmerman, the story of the greedy king is the alpha and the omega. The far greater length of Ovid’s work allows him to explore a vast number of themes, love being one of many. Zimmerman finds ample space to express several ideas within love such as chaos and order, justice versus injustice, theology, and rebirth. 

Each of her stories represents some form of love. For examples, the beginnings of romantic love with Pomona and Vertumnus, the loss of love between Orpheus and Eurydice, the paternal love of Apollo and Phaeton, the forbidden love of Myrrha and king Cinyras, the self-love of Narcissus and of Erysichthon, and the different forms of undying love in Alcyone and Ceyx, Eros and Psyche, and Baucis and Philemon.

Salome Barker, an outstanding actress in the play, says, “The biggest take away that I have from performing the different characters within the play Metamorphoses would be the idea of change and transformation. The best way I can describe this is when I played the character of Eurydice. The opening part is the classic tale, on Eurydice and Orpheus’ wedding day, Eurydice is killed by a snake and must go to the underworld. In this version of the tale, she is devastated and wants to be with her husband. However, in the Zimmerman version she tells two stories, the second one being from Rilke. In this tale, death is so new to Eurydice that she forgets about Orpheus, and she does not need him anymore. She’s content with this new life. It was very challenging for me to portray this, going from loving Orpheus to then changing and realizing that she was okay without him.”

One who attends the play expecting to see a faithful representation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses will undoubtedly be sorely disappointed. Zimmerman’s play simply isn’t that, and it doesn’t try to be. Instead, Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses rents Ovid’s myths and interprets them in unexpected new ways, to create a theatrical parable about the transformative power of love. For those with a soft-spot for happy endings, and a stomach for tragedy, Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is sure to delight.