‘Metamorphoses’: A delightfully fluid way to experience Roman mythology

(Teresa Wood) - Ashleigh Lathrop, left, and Tempe Thomas star in “Metamorphoses” at Arena Stage.

(Teresa Wood) - Ashleigh Lathrop, left, and Tempe Thomas star in “Metamorphoses” at Arena Stage.

The first word uttered in Mary Zimmerman’s luminously liquid pageant of ancient myths is “Bodies,” and how fitting that proves to be. Over the 100 shimmering minutes of “Metamorphoses,” a fleet squad of 10 actors finds ever more enchanting ways of embodying Roman poet Ovid’s stories of divinity-assisted transformation.

Whether the scenario is Hunger (Ashleigh Lathrop), clinging torturously to a cursed woodsman (Chris Kipiniak), or loving Baucis and Philemon (Tempe Thomas and Doug Hara), entering eternity as a pair of intertwining trees, Zimmerman’s elastic crew, with guile and muscle and humor, matches the lyricism of the tales with its own lyrical variety of shape-shifting.

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Arena Stage presents the biggest “Metamorphoses” pool to date from playwright Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical production. Through March 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.

Arena Stage presents the biggest “Metamorphoses” pool to date from playwright Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical production. Through March 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.

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Zimmerman has been represented in Washington by a storybook “Pericles,” vigorous “Argonautika,” “Candide” and beguiling “Arabian Nights.” But it is “Metamorphoses” — the play-in-the-pool she unveiled 15 years ago at her home base, Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre — that has become her signature work, one that in exporting it to Broadway, won her a Tony in 2002 for best director of a play.

Now, Zimmerman mounts it in Arena Stage’s Fichandler space, for its first presentation with an audience on all sides, and in the largest pool ever built for its waterborne theatrics. The results intensify the dramatic impact and amplify the beauty. Having seen “Metamorphoses” both on Broadway and at Lookingglass, I can attest that Arena’s production is not only the most serenely alluring, but also the most affectingly performed.

Five of the actors in the Fichandler were also in the Broadway version, and so veterans such as Hara, Kipiniak, Raymond Fox, Lisa Tejero and Louise Lamson carry out their assignments with the polish of long acquaintance. Fox is particularly strong as a King Midas, whose every gilded footstep is accompanied by an unsettling chime, and Lamson’s Alcyon wades with palpable anguish into the water, waiting for a seafaring Ceyx (Geoff Packard), who’ll return only in her dreams. The others immerse themselves with just as much conviction, making the Arena ensemble the most persuasive I’ve encountered.

Zimmerman’s theatrical addiction is classical texts, and her fix has always come in translating literary metaphors into physical images that delight modern sensibilities. The knock on her is that on occasion, an academic twee-ness infects the work (she happens to be a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University). One can see in “Metamorphoses” the intrusion at times of triteness, as when Midas foreshadows tragedy by repeatedly shouting at his daughter, “Be still for once!” Or when Hara’s Phaeton, wearing shades and lounging on a float, languidly complains about the inattentiveness of his father, Phoebus Apollo, otherwise known as the god of the sun.

These moments, though, are the exceptions. More often, the director-adapter, working from David Slavitt’s translations of Ovid, homes in on a touching quality of the myths, to give body to the ineffable, to explain aspects of interior life in terms of divine gifts and punishments. Grief, regret, desire, selflessness, vanity: All are couched in “Metamorphoses” in vivid picture-stories that provide to spectators a bit of graspable context, and in some cases comfort.

Thus, in the account of Orpheus (Packard) and Eurydice (Lauren Orkus) — first related here in Ovid’s form and then again, in a variation by Rainer Maria Rilke — we watch in horror as Orpheus squanders his last chance for happiness. His momentary lapse, turning to glance at Eurydice and in so doing dooming her to hell, becomes a function of a most understandably and sympathetically human of attributes: curiosity.

In other vignettes, inspiration springs from the mind and hands of costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, who devises a sheer party dress of glittering light for the goddess of the rainbow, and a familiar pair of feathery wings for Eros, here played proudly in the altogether by Hara. T.J. Gerckens’s lighting and the original music by Willy Schwarz ensure, meanwhile, that the cascade of unfolding drama is tastefully illuminated and scored.

Then there’s that majestic pool, designed by Daniel Ostling to fill the center of the theater and look as if the Fichandler required lifeguards all year round. (Playgoers seated closest to its perimeter are, in fact, given splash guards.) The gods are perched on platforms over the corner exits, and characters in Ovid’s myths descend a poolside flight of stairs, leaving the impression of Hades as a subterranean steam room. For the rest of us, “Metamorphoses” is as graceful and easy on the eyes as a synchronized dive off a 10-meter springboard.

Metamorphoses

written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. Based on David Slavitt’s translation of Ovid. Set, Daniel Ostling; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, T.J. Gerckens; sound, Andre Pluess; original music, Willy Schwarz. With Derek Hasenstab. About 100 minutes. Through March 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

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