As a teenager who read way too many books (for example, in my ninth-grade English class we were supposed to read 1,000 pages each semester; I read 10,000), I probably would have said that I was reading for the story. In the intervening years, I’ve come to appreciate the telling of the story as much as the story itself — possibly more, since good storytelling can transform an otherwise mediocre tale and poor storytelling can cripple a good one.
These past two weekends have been full of stories and storytelling.
Last Sunday I finally got to see Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses at Arena Stage. I say “finally” because I’ve been wanting to see it ever since 2002, when I was in New York for the very first time and decided to see a more traditional musical like Chicago instead of some weird non-musical that got people wet — naturally that “weird” play won a Tony for best play, the playwright/director got a MacArthur Genius Award, and I’ve loved everything of hers that I’ve seen since (Lookingglass Alice, Candide, Arabian Nights — all of which I apparently saw prior to writing this blog, because I can’t find any posts about them).
Metamorphoses is based on Ovid’s poem of the same title, and stories and storytelling are at it’s core. The central conceit is a group of people sitting around telling each other stories that people have been telling each other for centuries; namely, Greek myths. The actors tell us the stories of Midas, Eros and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, and a bunch of others — through all of which runs a central theme of, transformation.
|Eros and Psyche|
What struck me about the storytelling is just how spare it could be while delivering a powerful message. Greek mythology is so deeply ingrained in Western culture (especially as inculcated through my liberal-arts-heavy education) that in many instances Zimmerman could dispense of everything but a person and a single simbolic action (for example, a woman walks on stage and opens a box, smoke escapes, and she walks off) and we still get the point and know the whole story (Pandora!). Because the basic stories already live in our heads, Zimmerman could evoke them with little effort and then let the combination of the audience’s imagination and her script bring them to life with current, modern resonance.
One of my favorite sequences was Orpheus and Eurydice. The actors performed the story twice (Eurydice dies on her wedding day; Orpheus goes into the underworld to rescue her; but right as they emerge from the underworld he looks at her — which he was forbidden from doing — and loses her forever), and each time the narrator offered a different interpretation — one from Ovid; one from Rilke — and in so doing invited us to question both of those interpretations, as well as the interpretations we place on any of these stories.
Tonight I saw a different set of stories, all in short-form, unrelated to each other, and told in sequence, but this time film was the medium, and their common quality the fact that they’ve all been nominated for Academy Awards.
The live action shorts included a film from Belgium/France (La mort d’une ombre), Canada (Henry), the United States (Curfew), Afghanistan/USA (Buzkashi Boys), and South Africa (Asad). None of these stories was light: In one, a ghost takes pictures of deaths as they happen in hopes of returning to life; in another, an aging man struggles with dementia; another presents a man on the verge of suicide and his beaten sister; the remaining two offer bleak depictions of childhood in war-ravaged countries.
The first two were my favorites, both because I liked them in their own right, and because I loved the pairing.
|Death of a Shadow|
What La mort really did was prime the pump for Henry. This is a story of an aging musician who is losing his memory. The film takes us through moments of lucidity and dementia, and it rips your heart out to witness Henry’s loss of the beautiful, happy memories of his life with his wife (a violinist who is dead), his daughter (whom he doesn’t recognize), and even himself (“Was I a good man?” he asks the stranger who is is daughter). The tender Schubert piano music of the soundtrack contributes significantly to the poignant tale. By the end I was a complete wreck.
The others were fine; each with strong points. The more I think about them, though, the less I like the Afghani/US film. It was visually stunning (those mountains!) and told the story well — but here I think the story and the storytelling were out of synch. The film was written by an American, funded (at least in part) by the U.S. State Department, and it felt like an unhappy projection of the “American Dream” onto the reality of war-torn Afghanistan. I’m having a hard time figuring out how I feel about the film because I feel like I can’t tell whose story it is or who is telling it — and that uncertainty makes me distrust the film; I remember it cynically, and so it falls in my esteem.