Ovid unwilting: Berkshire Playwrights Lab, sculptor collaborate on new work
WEST STOCKBRIDGE -- " My lines / will be on people's lips; and through all time -- / if poets' prophecies are ever right -- / my name and fame are sure: I shall have life."
These words of Ovid's were not even then a new idea, but to the sculptor Ed Smith they are too frequently forgotten.
"Mankind should live forever by the characteristics of what they've given to society," he said. His goal is to make the audience "see that greatness is possible in the spirit of man."
To achieve this goal, he has partnered with Ann Garner of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab to build a play around his series of relief sculpturess based on Ovid's "Metamorphoses."
He and Garner will hold a staged reading of their new work, "Glory Unending" with Berkshire Playwrights actors at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, at No. 6 Depot Roastry and Cafe.
In Ovid's epic, Ulysses (played by Gary Cookson) and Ajax (played by Charlie Tirrell) debate before the Greek chieftains which of them should wear the armor of the dead Achilles. Ajax argues that he is stronger and braver, and Ulysses says he is smarter. The Greeks choose Ulysses, and Ajax, in his anguish, kills himself.
To Garner, the director, this contest "is a foundational question of Western civilization. Are we people of intellect or people of action? We still ask that question. We ask it with our politicians -- are these good talkers or are they people who will do something? It's a Cartesian split between the body and the mind that I think is anticipated through of all of classical and Renaissance literature."
Garner and Smith co-adapted the play, using multiple Ovid translations to "give it a more rounded flavor" and vary tempos, the way different musicians interpret the same compositions differently, said Smith.
For example, Garner said, "Ajax is a man of action and some translations can make his language too poetic. So sometimes we'll go with a translation that's a little more brutal or has more simplicity."
They also included excerpts from Aeschylus's "Agamemnon" and Sophocles' "Philoctetes" for background on some events alluded to in the primary text.
The reliefs, meanwhile, are 50 structolite, steel and wood panels. They are very large, 32 inches by 32 inches, except for the frontispiece, which is 5 feet by 5 feet.
"The reliefs are very clearly aligned with the pediment and the metopes of the Greek temples," Smith said. "They look like the Elgin Marbles."
In the show, they will appear on a screen behind the actors, and several of Smith's smaller reliefs will hang on the wall.
The whole project sprung from a dark period in Smith's life.
"When I built this series, I was going through a lot of deep struggles, trying to figure out things," he said. "I don't know if I ever figured things out, but I was able to get the chaos into some sort of order. The order that I could use was that between Ajax and Ulysses, between the mind and the body, between action and soul.
All he was reading was Homer and Ovid, and he began composing poems as the titles for the reliefs. They were much too long for titles, but the text of Ovid continued to run through Smith's head in relation to the reliefs, and he wanted to hear it.
Finally, Smith met Jim Frangione of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab and Lisa Landry of the No. 6 Depot, and both jumped at the idea of pairing the reliefs with the text.
"I'm really grateful that the BPL is doing this, because it's pretty challenging," Smith said. "It's not dancing and song. Right now most companies don't do dangerous stuff."
Adapting the text was fairly natural for Garner and Smith, once they began working together. They both have classical backgrounds. Garner has a PhD in English Renaissance literature, and "in order to understand that you need to have lots of classics," she said.
Smith, for his part, has been working with the classics since his childhood, when he chose to study Latin in high school.
"I was really the worst student, but I was probably the most passionate," he said.
Both Smith and Garner said that mixing of texts and media is in the spirit of the classics.
"Ovid was a performance poet. It wasn't written," Smith said.
This meant that Ovid could add in new elements and edit.
"It gets the zeitgeist," Smith said.
"They draw on these standard stories, these standard myths," she said. "It's about retelling. We think of these classical pieces as being set in stone, but they're really alive to whoever the artist is coming in and doing them."
They had written the script, Smith said, he told himself his work was done, and in rehearsal he mostly sits by and makes occasional suggestions.
"Ann is a great director," he said, and "as soon as [the actors] get into the role, they're in the poetry."
The Berkshire Playwright Labs' style makes this already unique production slightly more unusual, because actors remain on-book.
"It relieves a lot of anxiety about memorization," Garner said. "We've really been able to concentrate on making the script whatever it can be."
The title of the play, "Glory Unending," comes from the Iliad, where Achilles says his "kleos" [glory, fame] will be "aphithiton" [unending, unwilting].
Kleos Aphithiton is the immortality that comes from greatness which Ulysses and Ajax fought for, which Ovid predicted for himself, and which Smith hopes to remind us of the possibility of.
If you go ...
What: 'Glory Unending' based on Ovid's ‘Metamorpheses'
Where: No. 6 Depot, 6 Depot St, West Stockbridge
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug 1 and Saturday, Aug 2