Ovid Metamorphosed: Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories
Naomi Iizuka’s 1997 play, Polaroid Stories, consciously uses stories, characters and themes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to tell the stories of street kids living on the edge in a desolate, urban landscape. Because these characters are named after Orpheus and Eurydice, and Echo and Narcissus, or based on stories of Dionysus, and Ariadne and Theseus, and because scenes are entitled “The Story of Semele” or “Theseus in the Labyrinth,” Iizuka creates a world that has two dimensions: the gritty realm of drug dealers, homeless kids, and prostitutes and the realm of self-fashioning and shape-shifting gods. By blending these two dimensions, Iizuka comments on several Ovidian themes: the relationship of the gods to humans, women as victims, and the power of story-telling.
While Ovid is a master at portraying humans sympathetically, usually at the expense of the gods, Iizuka, by having the gods’ roles played by street kids, offers an even more human perspective, exposing gods as no more than other humans and showing what happens when kids try to play god. D(ionysus) is a god because he is “not fucked up,” because he is in charge (he refers to Skinhead Boy (Theseus) as “little brother”), and because he has a stash of drugs that he parcels out on his own terms. At the end of the play, when G (Zeus/Hades) tries to help Eurydice by giving her a knife, he unwittingly offers her the means by which she will stab Orpheus.
Second, Iizuka re-casts these stories from the woman’s point of view and creates women’s communities in the play where they are lacking in Ovid’s versions of the myths. For example, by introducing Eurydice on stage first, Iizuka presents her story from her point of view: “I got a man like a bad dream that follows me no matter where I go.” In addition, she tells her story to Persephone, and when Orpheus appears, it is Persephone who mocks him. Not only do we hear stories from women’s perspective, we see women reject men’s offers of love. When Narcissus asserts that Echo wants “to jump [his] bones,” Echo replies, “I don’t want nothing you got.”
Third, everyone in Polaroid Stories tells stories, sometimes fabricating wild lies, other times revealing personal pain. Story-telling is way to escape the reality of the urban landscape and a way to persuade and enchant others. No story is more poignant than Philomel’s story, who does not speak throughout the play, but whose story weaves through the lives of the other characters. Her music, her song, is a radio playing old tunes. By contrast, while Orpheus can speak and tell his tales, his story-telling is usually rejected. Finally and most tellingly, there is no narrator in the play who, like Ovid, has the power to remind the audience of who is in control. As a result, the sympathy that we feel for these street kids is deeper and more compelling. By the end of the play, the stories we have witnessed help us understand and empathize with the street kids whose polaroid snapshots we see in the final scene of the play.
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