Editorial Review

Review: Overacting transforms play
By Celia Wren
Thursday, May 10, 2012

Various failings land folks in trouble in classical mythology. Greed turns Midas's world into a golden prison. Willfulness earns Phaeton a fiery comeuppance. Arrogance leads Erysichthon to chop down a sacred tree, prompting the goddess Ceres to curse him with insatiable hunger.

In Constellation Theatre Company's production of "Metamorphoses," the weakness on view is mugging. Director Allison Arkell Stockman and her team succeed in coaxing some handsome images from Mary Zimmerman's script, an adaptation of Ovid. But the tendency of several performers to overact - and in particular, to milk situations for goofy comedy - undermines the show's potentially haunting poetry.

As stipulated in Zimmerman's script, Constellation's "Metamorphoses" unfurls in and around a pool - in this case, a trapezoidal one, nestled between cloud-ghosted, sky-blue walls. (A.J. Guban designed the set.) As the production's 10 role-juggling actors channel the crises-filled lives of gods, demigods and humans, the water becomes a presence in the storytelling - standing in for seas, springs and rooms but also serving as a metaphor for desire, self-indulgence, possibility and death.

As the mutually adoring spouses Alcyone and Ceyx, actors Katie Atkinson and Michael Kevin Darnall wade through the pool, then climb out of it, their entwining bodies suggesting the characters' transformation into a pair of birds. As the incestuous lovers Cinyras and Myrrha, performers Matthew Pauli and Megan Dominy embrace while up to their waists in H2O. As the famished Erysichthon, Pauli snuggles up to the pool edge and, laboriously propping his foot on dry land, positions a knife and fork as if he's about to dine on his own flesh.

Such images can look pretty snazzy, especially when flushed with Guban's dramatic, highly colored lighting. And Kendra Rai's costumes, which range stylistically from Grecian-style tunics to a black-and-gold tracksuit for Midas (Keith E. Irby) to shapeless black shrouds for underworld wraiths, are bold without being flashy. The visuals, in short, match the relaxed power of Zimmerman's now-colloquial, now-lyrical, humor-peppered language; and some of the acting complements this dynamic. Pauli does a fine job with his roles; and Jefferson Farber is divertingly petulant as Phaeton, who floats in the pool on an inflatable ring while griping to his therapist (Misty Demory).

But other performers overdo the hamming. For instance, flitting around the stage with little squeals as the horticulture-loving nymph Pomona, Atkinson becomes annoyingly cartoonish; Ashley Ivey layers on too much shtick as Pomona's shape-shifting suitor Vertumnus (briefly seen acting lovey-lovey with a cane); and the kooky preening of Farber's Hermes and Darnall's Zeus hampers a potentially moving anecdote about the gods' visit to Earth.

The pool can be a problematic performer, too, because of the intimacy of the Source space. Sitting so close to the water, you can find yourself concentrating on waves, or on actor-balance and breath-holding issues, rather than the overall storytelling. And the splashing and dripping sounds can be loud and distracting, occasionally even conspiring with the moody, percussion-heavy music, performed by composer Tom Teasley, to muddy the actors' words.

You can only admire the energy Stockman and her colleagues have invested in making the pool work as well as it does. And it stands to reason that "Metamorphoses" would appeal to Constellation, which has demonstrated a taste for the epic in shows like "The Ramayana" and Zimmerman's "The Arabian Nights." (Arena Stage is scheduled to present Lookingglass Theater Company's "Metamorphoses," directed by Zimmerman, in 2013.)

But "Metamorphoses" should suggest an overarching cosmos swirling with irony, mutability and transcendence. In Constellation's version, the acting and the attention-grabbing water sometimes impede that vision.

Preview: Diving in with 'Metamorphoses'
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, May 4, 2012

Theater companies hoping to stage Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" must overcome one daunting obstacle; you might even call it a moat: The set for the Tony-nominated series of mythical vignettes is a pool that fills most of the stage.

Now this might easily fit within the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall, the Kennedy Center or Arena Stage (where it will play next year). But Constellation Theatre Company is producing "Metamorphoses" in the Black Box theater of the unassuming Source on 14th Street. Just in time for warmer weather, the small space now boasts a 4,000-gallon basin designed by Constellation managing director A.J. Guban.

"I feel like probably not a day has passed in the past six weeks that one of us hasn't looked at the other and said, 'What are we doing?' " says artistic director Allison Stockman. She adds with a laugh, "To which the other one responds, 'It's too late.' "

This isn't the first time Constellation has packed a sprawling epic into Source's intimate confines. Having staged "The Ramayana" and "The Green Bird" in seasons past, the universal themes and fantastical nature of "Metamorphoses" seemed a natural fit. The narratives include the cautionary story of Midas, the tale of star-crossed Orpheus and Eurydice, and the fable of Ceyx's transformation into a bird.

"The stories that we're drawn to are so large, and when we find a play that we want to do, we dive in because we want to tell it," Stockman says.

Stockman, who is directing the show, has collaborated with Guban on more than 20 plays over the past six years. The pair shares a seemingly limitless outlook, and past results have been stunning. But this hurdle has called for more than positive attitudes. The design planning, which generally takes Guban two or three months, required six. He had to learn a new language, which included corrugated plastic, pH levels and ionization, a chlorine-free method of cleaning water. He also needed to contemplate how the set and actors would coexist. ("Our ideal temperature, according to the American Red Cross, is 82 degrees," he explains.)

Another dilemma involved determining what was feasible in a novel niche of set design.

"One of Allison's and my first ideas was that the downstage wall of the pool would be a plexiglass wall, and then at our first meeting [with pool consultants], they were like, 'You're crazy. Do you know how much that's going to cost?' " Guban says.

The final product is a trapezoidal creation 18 feet long with depths from three inches to three feet. The pool, surrounded by wooden tiles, includes an underwater tunnel for exiting stage right.

"There were stage directions like, 'Ceyx vanishes,' and so there's the idea that people sort of disappear, and it was a question of figuring out how we could do that," Stockman says of the secret passage.

Although the set posed challenges, it was hardly the only concern. The budget turned out to be about double that of the company's previous ventures. There was a successful "Fill the Pool" fundraiser, and "Metamorphoses" will be onstage eight times a week, going dark only on Mondays.

Another complication involves the frequent costume changes during the intermission-less, 90-minute performance. Ten actors, playing five to seven characters each, end up wearing 50 outfits - everything from flowing Grecian robes to modern-day tracksuits - designed by recent Helen Hayes Award recipient Kendra Rai ("The Green Bird"). Rai has been experimenting with quick-drying fabrics and "standing in the shower in the costumes a lot," Stockman says.

Despite what has turned out to be the company's most formidable production, Stockman and Guban are rhapsodic as ever.

"The great thing is, we're still so in love with this play that any fears or frustrations that come up are overwhelmed by our enthusiasm about the project," Stockman says. "And that's not always the case. Sometimes there are lulls during the technical process where you think, 'I just can't wait to get out of here.' But this show is so special that I feel like it really reminds us of the things we love most about the theater."