BOSTON — ArtsEmerson became one of the most valuable players in the local scene as soon as it reopened the Paramount Theatre two years ago. Theatres, actually, as the Paramount has a black box and movie room as well as the mainstage in a complex now known as the Paramount Center.
Its director, Rob Orchard, has brought in some of the country’s – the world’s – great theater and dance companies and now he’s doing something equally important to the area. Having seen Whistler in the Dark’s production of “Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid” a couple of years ago at the Factory Theatre in the South End he invited artistic director Meg Taintor to restage it in the Paramount’s black box (through Nov. 18).
Orchard plans to do more with Boston small theaters, which is a great boost for the local scene and something he had done at the American Repertory Theatre with Robert Brustein when they brought the Sugan Theatre’s excellent production of “St. Nicholas” to the ART’s second stage, then at the Hasty Pudding.
And he picked another fine company this time. Whistler’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth” was one of the top five productions by any company, any size in the area last season. Their fluency with a very difficult theatrical language was astounding.
They also bring a physicality to the table that not many companies can match, which is what makes this production something special. The set consists of ceiling-to-floor sheets that the five actors – in black leotards and bare feet — climb, twist, reshape and otherwise contort (and conjoin) in to tell the stories of Ovid’s metamorphoses.
The actors are also the narrators and the mix of the two doesn’t always work well. I often found myself marveling at what they did physically but losing the thread of the story, partly because the actors’ delivery seems overly formal. Still, their sensuality matches that of Ted Hughes’ translation of these transformative tales. And what stories of vengeful gods and narcissistic people. Literally narcissistic – Narcissus is the fellow who saw his image in the water and wasted away from his unrequited love for himself. Sound like anyone you know?
One thing ArtsEmerson could do better is provide better program notes. Taintor notes that the passions that drove people in Ovid’s time are still what drive us today, and hers is certainly a passionate staging of Hughes/Ovid. But perhaps a rundown of some of the mythology in the stories would take some of the narrative pressures off the actors and audience in this otherwise sparkling production.