A decade ago, director Mary Zimmerman won a Tony for a staging of Metamorphoses set around a pool. In its carnal, beauteous, and terrifying Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid (presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center through November 18), Boston troupe Whistler in the Dark ditches water for air. Spinning stories from the mythological compilation completed by the Roman poet in 8 AD and translated into a 1997 Whitbread Book of the Year by onetime English poet laureate Hughes, an acrobatic ensemble of five climbs, dangles, and tangles among a quartet of silk skeins hung from the high rafters of the Jackie Liebergott Black Box while at the same time delivering Hughes’s muscular, Nature-infused verse. The piece, helmed by artistic director Meg Taintor, was conceived by the company in 2010 and first performed at its then home in the Factory Theatre. ArtsEmerson has enabled the Whistlers to reinvent their primal time in prime time, and its Tales from Ovid is a pared-down, pumped-up dip into the elemental that I am grateful not to have missed twice.
With its Pilobolus-like tumbling and coupling, its aerial poses and plunges, and its Feiffer-esque black leotards, this Tales from Ovid might seem more a dance than a theater piece. But the Whistlers are a stage troupe best known for stark if poetical works by politicized Brit writers, among them Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, and Tom Stoppard (next up is Churchill’s Vinegar Tom in January).
The fit young performers would seem to have learned their daring physical tricks from consultants Jill Maio and Leah Able of AirCraft Aerial Arts. And their journey out of Chaos into Ovid’s sensuous, vengeful dust-up of gods and mortals is enhanced by the dissonant violin scrapings of the work’s co-composer, Shaw Pong Liu. But the Whistlers (when they aren’t feigning old age) are accomplished actors. Narrating while enacting their series of mythological mini-dramas (separated by small, collective sighs), the performers both inhabit their archetypal characters — including a number who are painfully turned into beasts — and mine the powerful, sometimes hideous emotion built into Hughes’ text. With a grand simplicity, eschewing wild differentiation among personae, they do exactly what Hughes ordered: turn Ovid’s chock and florid chronicle into a collective Jungian dream.
TED HUGHES’ TALES FROM OVID :: Paramount Theatre, 559 Washington St, Boston Through November 18 :: $25-$49 :: 617.824.8000 or artsemerson.org
, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Whistler in the Dark, More