‘Metamorphoses’ is good when it doesn’t turn hammy


Katie Atkinson in the Constellation Theatre Company's production of "Metamorphoses." (Scott Suchman)
May 9, 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.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Metamorphoses

By Mary Zimmerman. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; properties design, Samina Vieth; fight choreography, Cliff Williams III; choreography, Ashley Ivey; pool adviser, Leanne Bock; technical director, Daniel Flint. With Lisa Lias and Jade Wheeler. 90 minutes. Through June 3 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-204-7741 or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.

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