‘Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid’’ is a work as inventive, audacious, and vital as the company that created it. Whistler in the Dark Theatre has adapted Hughes’s translations from “Metamorphoses’’ into an original new shape, and the result should be seen by anyone who wants to watch boundary-stretching theater artistry in action.
High-flying action, in this case. These “Tales’’ — directed by Meg Taintor and presented by ArtsEmerson in the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre — draw on the incantatory power of Ovid’s often-harrowing narratives of creation, destruction, passion, hubris, and revenge. But the production really swoops and shimmers its way to greatness by means of aerial acrobatics performed by Taintor’s wondrously athletic cast of five.
It’s a marriage of circus arts to classical texts, and it is the polar opposite of gimmicky. When the black-clad performers are suspended on aerial silks far above the stage, or soaring through space, or suddenly plummeting downward, it’s more than mere visual punctuation, but a physical representation of the emotions and ideas, the mysteries of human nature and the vagaries of the gods, that lie at the heart of “Tales From Ovid.’’
The effect is to propel the production even deeper into the timeless realm of myth.
The movement and choreography were devised by the company and shaped by Taintor, Whistler in the Dark’s founding artistic director. Equally key to the production’s success is Taintor’s trust in silence as a theatrical force. There are periods of stillness during which the principal sound we hear is the performers’ respiration, even as the spectators hold their collective breath.
Throughout, the production’s otherworldly aura is enhanced by PJ Strachman’s eerie blue lighting and the spare, chilly music by Shaw Pong Liu, who is also part of the ensemble, and David McMullin. The other performers are Whistler stalwarts Danny Bryck, Jen O’Connor, Aimee Rose Ranger, and Mac Young. Whether they are earthbound or airborne, their performances are marked by discipline, clarity, and intense conviction.
This production represents a major step up in visibility for Whistler in the Dark, a fringe company that has earned a reputation for provocative, first-rate work at the tiny Factory Theatre in the South End. It was there that Robert J. Orchard, executive director of ArtsEmerson, saw “Tales From Ovid’’ a couple of years ago. He invited the company to remount it at the Paramount Center — a discerning use of ArtsEmerson’s institutional clout. “I thought it might be fun if they could revisit the production in a larger space and really let it sort of take off,’’ Orchard told the audience on opening night.
Whistler makes the most of its more ample showcase, that’s for sure. An early sequence sets the tone: Young portrays Phaethon, the god Phoebus’s mortal son who, “drunk with his youth,’’ beseeches his father for a chance to drive the chariot of the sun, pulled by winged horses. Granted that chance, he grabs it; we watch Young shimmy eagerly up the silk, then cockily hang upside down. But Phaethon loses control of the horses, resulting in a world-scorching catastrophe that forces Jove to hurl lightning at him. Young plunges down the silk: Phaethon’s fatal descent.
Taintor and her cast bring similar vividness to the stories of vain Narcissus, who rebuffs the lovestruck Echo only to be consumed by his own love for himself; of the incestuous relationship between Myrrha and King Cinyras that eventually results in the birth of Adonis; of Atalanta, who tells male suitors they can only win her if they can outrun her; of vile Tereus, who rapes and mutilates Philomela, the sister of his wife, Procne, and is then subjected to a ghastly act of vengeance by both women; of Arachne, doomed to hang forever from a thread; of the beautiful Callisto, transformed into a bear by a jealous Juno, then hurled with her son into space, where they are transmogrified into constellations.
A fitting image for a production that works a little celestial magic of its own. When the opening-night performance was over, the cast took a bow, then left the stage and did not return for a curtain call. The audience continued to applaud, as if reluctant to break the spell.