The Art of Love
nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
January 20, 2006
Your husband? Going to the same dinner as us?
I hope it chokes him.
-Ovid, excerpt from Amores
Publius Ovidius Naso, known to the world as Ovid, was a poet whose themes of infidelity and the pleasures of life, though often frivolous, became immortal due to the wit, elegance, and technical rigor of his style. It's interesting to think about what his personal ethics were given the contrast between his chosen subject matter and form. The Art of Love, written by Robert Kornfeld, is based on the most difficult choice Ovid probably had to make, between exile and renunciation of his work. Unfortunately the playwright's timely and intriguing themes are hampered by an uneven cast and directing choices that yield more questions than answers.
The play takes place during the rule of Emperor Augustus, who, following the fall of Julius Caesar, wishes to maintain civil peace and order by enforcing standards of morality. At this time, Ovid is well known for The Art of Love, a handbook of seduction written in three books, two for men and one added by popular request for women. That is followed by Metamorphoses, an epic poem in fifteen books that recounts myths of the gods' follies and is feared by Augustus as symbolic of the human faults of himself and the leaders of Rome. Adding to the emperor's worries of public humiliation and questioning of his ability to rule is the fact that his daughter Julia is known as a sexual libertine influenced by Ovid's works.
The emperor exiles his daughter and asks Ovid to disclaim his writing. When Ovid refuses more than once, Augustus banishes him to Tomis, outside of what is now Romania, away from his beloved wife Fastina and family. There, Ovid languishes until his death, futilely corresponding with Augustus and later his successor Tiberius for forgiveness and the right to return.
In side plots that show the hypocrisy of the emperor and those scheming to rule, Tiberius, Ovid's false friend, plans to divorce his wife to marry Julia and then bring her back from exile and rule as Augustus's successor. Meanwhile, Livia, Augustus's wife, cajoles and then threatens Irene, the daughter of Ovid's best friend Cassilus, to become the emperor's young mistress. (I'm not sure exactly why. It could be because she knows that her husband has always had affairs and, given the new morality standards he himself has imposed, she wishes to protect them both from public censure by procuring a secret mistress herself. Or it could have something to do with the daughter being privy to private conversations between Ovid and Cassilus, thus forcing her to be a spy. Dawn Jamieson as Livia does not present a specific choice for her character's action and it is not clear how she herself feels about what she is doing.)
Director Tom Thornton does create a pace for the action that is fast-moving and he uses the playing space to good effect. This is most apparent in the play-within-a-play that is put on for Augustus and the use of an elevated area for both the emperor's quarters and Ovid's marriage bed. There are real relationships conveyed between Ovid (James Nugent), and Cassilus (Doug Stone), Tiberius (Stephen Francis), Augustus (Thornton), and Gett (Clyde Kelley). Each actor is believable in his role, most notably Thornton as the corrupt Augustus. However, Nugent's portrayal of Ovid, as committed, heartfelt and humane as it is, does not address the full complexity of a man who chooses banishment over being forgotten. We see him flatter the emperor, argue against free elections partly in order to keep his life of ease and prestige, but then leave everything so that his work may live after him. Is this a statement of personal artistic freedom against the state or a choice based on ego? He refers back to his ribald stories as made up and not based on personal experience. Is that the truth or is he making a decision to lie and save his work? If it is the truth, how does Fastina feel when he writes to her in exile that he is keeping company with a young girl (Nina Covalesky)?
There are beautiful costumes by Carolyn Adams that show us each character's standing in their society. Mark Mercante, the set designer lets us know exactly what the stakes are with a giant and intimidating mask of Juno over the emperor's throne. It is lit at moments to show the power of the state through the lighting design of Alex Moore. I think that if such specificity extended to all of the acting and directing choices, it would further deepen the world of this play and illuminate its worthy themes and fascinating subject.