Stage Door Review
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
by Michele Smith & Dean Gilmour with the company, directed by Michele Smith
Theatre Smith-Gilmour, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto
March 24-April 9, 2023
“Omnia mutantur, nihil interit” (Metamorphoses 15:165
Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Theatre Smith-Gilmour are an ideal pairing of subject matter and performance troupe. Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s shows are based on mime, and mime is always about transformation – turning literally nothing into something simply by gestures and actions. Metamorphoses (9AD) by Publius Ovidius Naso (43BC-c.17AD) is the great Latin poem that takes transformation of all kinds as its very subject. Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s show sheds light on the nature of existence even as it stuns us visually and emotionally.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the great works of European literature than has always defied categorization. It is long enough to be an epic like Virgil’s Aeneid (19BC) and is written in an epic meter, but it does not have a single story to tell. It is an exploration not of plot but of theme and that theme, as the title proclaims, is transformation. In 15 books and 11,995 lines Ovid recounts over 250 myths concerning transformations in Greek and Roman mythology beginning with the creation of the cosmos and ending with the deification of Julius Caesar in 42BC.
The book contains innumerable stories that audiences will know from other media. The story of Tiresias, changed from a man to a woman and then back again, appears in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c.429BC). The story of Pentheus being torn apart by the Maenads, who included his own mother and aunt, is the subject of Euripides’ play The Bacchae (405BC). The story of the hunter Acteon torn apart by his own dogs for glimpsing Diana bathing is the subject of the opera Actéon (1683) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The gruesome tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela is the subject If We Were Birds (2010) by Canadian Erin Shields.
Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour obviously could not dramatize Ovid’s entire work. Instead, they say,“The never-ending war of the sexes is the major theme of our adaptation”. Ovid’s Metamorphoses does not have a central narrator, so to give the production unity they have decided to make Tiresias the narrator, the mediator between our world and the fantastic happenings on stage.
The action begins with the show’s five actors, clad all in black, sitting on black chairs on a bare black stage. We can tell by their gestures that they are miming putting on their makeup in the invisible mirrors in front of them. This simple, brilliant move sets up Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s entire approach to the work and its meaning. This meta-metatheatrical prelude shows us actors playing actors who are in the process of transforming themselves into characters. Acting is transformation. Theatre is transformation. And it is the collusion of the audience with the actors that makes the transformation of one character to another possible.
Thus, whatever metamorphosis the performers enact will be a product of the metamorphosis the performers have made from themselves into characters.
In the midst of the cast trying on costumes – in the minimalist style of the show these are merely draped cloths or crowns – Dean Gilmour pulls off his black shirt and puts on a bra. This is the sign that he is the character Tiresias, who will first narrate his story and then supply the introduction and commentary on the eight other stories that make up the show. Tiresias is a good choice as narrator of the stories Smith and Gilmour have chosen since he is a man who had been changed to a woman for seven years during which time he bore children before being changed back to a man. When Jupiter and Juno debate who has more pleasure in sex, the man or the woman, Tiresias is the natural person to ask. When he answers that women do, Juno strikes him blind. In compensation, Jupiter gives him the ability to see the future.
Because of his clairvoyance Tiresias approaches certain of the play’s characters to warn them of their fate. As usual they scoff at his warnings and as usual the scoffer’s deadly fate arrives as foretold.
Two tales deal with unrequited love. One is Echo (Sukruti Tirupattur) who is fated to speak only the last words spoken to her. She falls in love with Narcissus (Rob Feetham), but pines away never able to make her feelings known. Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and drowns in trying to kiss it.
Two tales deal with lovers who never want to be apart. In one the naiad Salmacis (Neena Jayarajan) falls in love with Hermaphroditus (Feetham) and prays never to be separated from him. The god’s unique answer is to blend the two beings into one so that Hermaphroditus becomes both a man and a woman.
A second tale, one of the less familiar of the evening, concerns Ceyx (Daniel R. Henkel) and Alcyone (Tirupattur). Ceyx vows to sail away to consult an oracle but Alcyone begs him not to go fearing he will never come back. Ceyx does indeed die in a shipwreck. When Alcyone learns of his death in a dream she seeks out his body and in pity the gods change them both into kingfishers.
Two tales concern a man punished for seeing what he should not see. One is Pentheus (Henkel), who is disturbed that the women of Thebes have been taking to the mountains to worship Bacchus in wild rites. Tiresias warns him not to observe them or his destruction with follow. Pentheus dismisses Tiresias’ warning, spies on the women and is literally torn limb from limb.
Similarly, the hunter Acteon (Feetham) accidentally views the goddess Diana (Jayarajan) bathing and for this she punishes him by turning him into a stag that his own hounds take down and maul to death.
Two tales concern the transformation of the characters into birds. The most gruesome of the evening is that of Tereus (Henkel), King of Thrace, who though married to Procne (Tirupattur), rapes, imprisons and cuts out the tongue of Procne’s sister Philomena (Jayarajan). When Procne learns what has happened, she takes a terrible revenge on Tereus. The gods transform Tereus into a hoopoe, Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale.
In a story echoing Tiresias’ own, Caenis (Tirupattur), after being raped by Neptune (Henkel) prays to be made a man and that this never occurs again. Her wish is granted and Caenis become the man Caeneus who possesses impenetrable skin. When centaurs attack they cannot kill him by blows or stabbing and finally hit on the idea of burying him alive. At the moment of death Caeneus was changed into a golden-winged bird and escaped.
All of these numerous transformations the Theatre Smith-Gilmour troupe accomplish through mime with a minimum of dialogue. This is the miracle of the show – making the impossible possible right before our eyes. Though the five work as a team each of the five is has a specialty. Dean Gilmour portrays Tiresias’ changes from man to woman back comically and takes Jupiter’s gift of second sight as a poor substitute for blindness. Yet, Gilmour’s voice fills with pity for those he warns knowing that horrors that are in store for them.
Rob Feetham is perhaps the finest mime. He portrays Narcissus growing from a baby to a vain young man in smooth, gradual stages so that his ultimate destiny as the epitome of self-love seems destined. He is excellent in depicting Narcissus frustration at losing his refection when he disturbs the water and is wonderful in showing the drowned Narcissus floating underwater.
Feetham’s greatest achievement is his step-by-step depiction of Acteon turning into a stag, registering the horror as horns sprout from his head, his hands turn to hooves, his face lengthens, he loses his voice and he can no longer stand on two feet. Seeing this transformation alone is worth the price of admission. Feetham shows us what is really a nightmare become real of a human being completely losing control over his body.
Daniel R. Henkel is cast in a series of roles as noble, haughty men who feel they know better than anyone else how the world runs. In each case Henkel’s character’s hubris is punished in the most brutal ways imaginable. Henkel mimes Pentheus being torn apart in a frighteningly realistic manner, even showing how limbs stay put under strain until finally wrenched from their sockets. His mimed death was far more terrifying and pitiable than the death of Pentheus in Bakkhai stage at Stratford in 2017.
Similarly, Henkel makes Tereus’ grotesque, unwitting munching on his cannibalistic meal comic only to be able to contrast Tereus’s hideous enjoyment with the dawn of the devastating realization of what, or shall we say whom, he was consuming.
Both Neena Jayarajan and Sukruti Tirupattur are both trained in Bharatanatyam dance, the oldest classical dance tradition in India. They bring a South Asian sensibility to both movement and mime in the piece with an emphasis on footwork and hand and facial gestures. As director, Michele Smith has ensured that the European and South Asian styles complement each other to heighten the universality of Ovid’s stories.
Jayarajan shines most in the role of the mute Philomena, who skillfully retells entirely in mime how she was raped, mutilated and imprisoned by Tereus. The fact that Philomena must act out her story in mime because she was de-tongued by Tereus adds an element of horror tempered by admiration in overcoming adversity, a strange mixture of effects that Jayarajan fully conveys.
Tirupattur’s most demanding role is that of Caenis. She artfully depicts the wide arc of her character’s experiences from her shame and rage at having been raped to her transformation into a male and then her acrobatic demonstrations of the many ways of killing a centaur. Tirupattur’s depiction of Caenis/Caeneus being smothered to death is all too effective.
Ovid’s primary reflections on the purpose of his compendium of transformations throughout world history he places in the mouth of the historical character Pythagoras (c.570-c.495BC). He is most famous now for his mathematical and scientific discoveries. But Ovid is most interested in Pythagoras as the philosopher who believed the only constant in the world was change. This is the same view as that of Heraclitus, a contemporary of Pythagoras.
But Ovid choses because he brings constant transformation into the spiritual realm through his belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls: "Nec species sua cuique manet, rerumque novatrix / ex aliis alias reddit natura figuras: / nec perit in toto quicquam, mihi credite, mundo" (“Nothing retains the form that seems its own, and Nature, the renewer of all things, continually changes every form into some other shape”). Or, to sum up more succinctly, “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit” (“Everything changes, nothing dies”).
Smith and Gilmour give Pythagoras’ lines to Tiresias showing that everything in life, including death, is part of the mutability that is nature’s law. An actor can become not just one character, but change while playing that character as well as change from one character to another, thus demonstrating that mutability is also the law of the theatre. This parallel is clinched at the conclusion when Smith and Gilmour imagine Tiresias dying right next a pair of newly laid eggs.
In a political and social climate where people have become so focussed on defining and protecting identity, Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s Metamorphoses 2023 comes as a welcome counterpoise. In Ovid there is no such thing as identity. Characters are who they are only for a moment before they are changed into something else. Even death is merely a transformation. It would be hard to find a work that is so simple and entertaining a fusion of theatre and philosophy as Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s Metamorphoses 2023.
Photo: Dean Gilmour, Daniel R. Henkel, Neena Jayarajan and Rob Feetham; Dean Gilmour as Tiresias; Neena Jayarajan as Philomela and Sukruti Tirupattur as Procne; Rob Feetham as Acteon; Sukruti Tirupattur as Caeneus fighting the Centaurs – Rob Feetham, Daniel R. Henkel and Dean Gilmour. © 2023 Johnny Hockin.
For tickets visit www.crowstheatre.com.