WASHINGTON, May 12, 2012 – A week into its month long run at the Source, the Constellation Theatre Company’s thoughtful new production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is settling into its groove. The play was inspired by the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s (43 BC-AD 17?) eponymous, epic-length poem that famously retells key ancient Roman and Greek myths.
What’s now known as Metamorphoses (the play) got its start back in 1996 as Six Myths. It was originally mounted at Northwestern University before migrating to Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre.
It eventually found its way to New York, first off-Broadway and then, in 2002, in a production at the Circle in the Square. The Broadway iteration garnered a Best Director award for the playwright. As far as we can recall, Constellation’s current production marks this play’s first appearance in the DC area.
Taking place on an eerie, waterworld of a stage dominated by a massive, central pool—the playwright’s original concept—this version of the Metamorphoses is an imaginative, provocative, timeless, yet contemporary reflection on some of Ovid’s classic pagan parables. Each tale unfolds in a symbolic universe populated by all-too-human gods, demi-gods, mortals, and demons whose comedies and tragedies succinctly define the eternal truths we all must learn in order to lead noble and moral lives.
Constellation’s production re-creates Ms. Zimmerman’s original watery concept, erecting an astonishingly versatile and effective 4,000-gallon pool in the theater’s small performance area, a bold and rather daring creation of A. J. Guban, Constellation’s managing director. The pool is surrounded by a deck comprised of small wooden tiles whose open, parquet-style design cleverly provides the actors with a relatively nonskid surface while concealing drainage channels for the frequently splashing water.
This dark, ingeniously designed water feature itself is bounded by blue, post-industrial walls and is on occasion illuminated minimally from above by strings of clear, mock Edison-era filament light bulbs—a remarkably subtle visual effect. The pool’s design also allows for nearly invisible entrances and exit under the water.
The playwright’s water motif may seem a bit precious at first, but it’s not. In prose, poetry, and song, water frequently symbolizes transitions between life and death, the evolutionary forces of nature, and the Christian concept of baptism and redemption. It works as an overriding metaphor in this play, oddly similar to the way that Cirque du Soleil’s massive aquascape gives birth to successive acts in their staging of “O” at Las Vegas’ Bellagio.
Metamorphoses’ scale, obviously, is smaller, intentionally less ambitious, and more personal and intimate, important for a production that, unlike “O,” is focused more on inscape than spectacle.
In structure, Ms. Zimmerman’s play strongly resembles the “picaresque tale” originating in the world of prose fiction. It’s a slice of mythological life mostly devoid of a linear plot. It’s driven instead by a recurring central theme: the intensely transformative power of love and relationships. United with this theme is a secondary but still important caution: get too full of yourself and you’re looking for a fall.
Drawing its language from David Slavitt’s unfortunately prosaic free verse translation of Ovid’s original dactylic hexameter, Ms. Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses thematically arranges several of the Roman poet’s best-known takes on Greek and Roman mythology, transforming each into a mini-playlet that illustrate her central notion.
After a brief introduction that retells the creation myth, the Zimmerman Metamorphoses launches with the familiar myth of the avaricious King Midas (Keith E. Irby)—oddly appropriate during a weekend when megabank J.P. Morgan’s latest epic fail—a $2B plus derivatives trading loss at its London trading desk—triggered fears of 2008 all over again. Some Midases never learn. The play’s Midas at least has a chance to redeem his own flavor of hubris at the final curtain.
After Midas heads offstage to pursue redemption, we are treated to a series of vignettes that generally dwell on the negative and positive transformations that arise from the creative power of relationships.
For example, take Alcyone (Katie Atkinson) and Ceyx (Michael Kevin Darnall), a lovey dovey husband-wife duo who revel in their perfect romance. Unfortunately, hubby Ceyx tempts the Fates by deciding to escape his perfect life, spurred on by his Y-chromosomal desire for the rich spoils of a seafaring adventure. Alcyone is convinced things won’t end well. And they don’t. But their love will eventually save them in a remarkably ecofriendly way. Think “halcyon days.”
In contrast to Alcyone and Ceyx, we meet a more ephemeral would-be couple, Vertumnas (Ashley Ivey) and Pomona (Katie Atkinson), the latter a simpering forest nymph smitten with fruits, flowers, and vegetables instead of the brace of incredibly buff, incredibly available forest dudes who desire her. Yet the goofy Vertumnas triumphs in the end, somehow winning Pomona over while disguised as an old lady. Go figure. Perhaps love really is blind.
On the negative side, there’s a decidedly unpleasant coupling involving King Cynyras (Matthew Pauli) and his daughter Myrrha (Megan Dominy). After deciding that none of her suitors or would-be suitors are as attractive as Dad, Myrrha manages to seduce him with seriously negative consequences. Her problem is finally resolved when she’s turned into a new species of tree. Myrrha’s tree-tears provide us even today with myrrh, an important ancient preservative and scent.
The most successful couple in Ms. Zimmerman’s pantheon, however, arrives in the personages of the impoverished Baucis (Ms. Atkinson again) and her devoted husband Philemon (Mr. Ivey). In a tale strongly reminiscent of the Old Testament story of Lot, Zeus (Mr. Darnall) and Hermes (Jefferson Farber) visit a worldly village disguised as beggars. They want to see if anyone will give them hospitality in these nondescript forms.
Surprise! No one will, of course, save for Baucis and Philemon who are happy to share a meal with the pair even though it stretches their meager budget. They alone are rewarded by the gods in a most imaginative and heartwarming manner, atypical of the kind of treatment the ancient gods usually dished out to mortals.
In non-couples action, the callous Erysichthon (Matthew Pauli) loves to chop down trees, even those sacred to the goddess Ceres (Megan Dominy). Ceres exacts an Earth Day-style revenge by slipping the demigod of Hunger, Limos (Lisa Lias), into Erysichthon’s innards. This leads to his horrific doom, a cautionary tale for tree-killers of all ages.
Similar in his blind impetuousness, shallow Phaeton (Jefferson Farber) demands to drive Dad’s fiery chariot, which carries the sun through its daily arc. So horrendous are Phaeton’s driving skills that he gets himself pulled over—permanently—by Zeus for reckless endangerment, via serious global warming, of the planet Earth. In Ms. Zimmerman’s slyly contemporary update, Phaeton’s therapist (Misty Demory) provides a faux-Freudian narrative.
Also on tap during Metamorphoses are the familiar tales of Orpheus and Eurydice and Cupid and Psyche, each supplying yet another twist on couples therapy. In fact, the playwright goes one better in retelling the Orpheus myth, adding an instant replay from the point of view of Eurydice (Jade Wheeler), via poet Ranier Maria Rilke. Unfortunately, this flip side doesn’t really add much to the play.
The evening is rounded out with brief vignettes featuring the do-it-yourself love carried on by Narcissus (Mr. Farber) with himself, and a brief visit from Pandora (Ms. Demory) who opens her dreaded box and exit quickly thereafter.
Ultimately, Ms. Zimmerman’s characters, like Ovid’s, are archetypes. Without a linear plot, populated by mythic—and thus two-dimensional—characters, Metamorphoses thus proves something of a challenge for an energetic cast that also has to endure repeated drenchings, rapid costume changes, and (no doubt) frequent encounters with the blow drier before getting thrust back out on stage once again to impersonate yet another archetypal figure.
Somehow, though, they all manage to keep the proceedings together, aided considerably by Allison Arkell Stockman’s generally surefooted blocking and stage direction.
In so doing, the cast answers this play’s challenge by emphasizing for the story, the symbol, and the moral over character. Their characters thus become less important for their individuality and gain significance as moral, spiritual, and social signposts for the kind of beings we ourselves should either strive to be or strive to avoid becoming.
On the whole, this play is a refreshing break from the deeply complex, often angst-ridden characters we usually encounter in theater today.
Providing an atmospheric boost to this production is the original music written and performed by locally based composer-percussionist Tom Teasley. Rich with Greek-sounding scales, figures, and motifs and accentuated by occasional wordless vocals, Mr. Teasley’s score also recalls ancient music’s more primitive tonal horizons, at least when compared to regularized and somewhat more predictable modern Western scales.
Drawing on his electronic and acoustic instruments and one or two of his own devising, Mr. Teasley’s score seeks to create the kind of non-western, microtonal notation that once fascinated American avant-garde composer Harry Partch in the early to mid-twentieth century. While occasionally a bit too loud, Mr. Teasley’s evocative performance contributes significantly to the play’s atmosphere and sense of timelessness.
With the occasional humorous contemporary exception, Kendra Rai’s costuming is a tasteful echo of what we like to think of as Greco-Roman attire. Its flowing minimalism also has a practical application, given that the players proceed from one watery dunking to another. An additional off-the-beaten-path costuming surprise: the dark, featureless, shape shifting shades that menace characters that dare to face the underworld. That’s a very nice touch indeed.
Constellation’s production of Metamorphoses is one of the most unusual and thoughtful theater pieces we’ve seen this season. It’s a genuine literary and musical think piece whose unusual poolside setting actually helps transmit the message rather than detracting from it.
Although this production generally employs a light touch, it takes itself seriously too, propelled by a cast that can sell the lessons the play contains. Namely that for us today, even in the 21st century, the ancient Greek and Roman poets and playwrights can still teach us a great deal about the kind of conduct, morality, and sense of honor that would serve to sustain a successful and beneficial society.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars.)
Metamorphoses runs through June 3, 2012 at the Source. For tickets ($20-40), information, and directions, call 202-204-7741, or visit Constellation’s web site.
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