Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Metamorphoses: Gods of the Theater Smile on Us
Erysichthon, cursed with insatiable hunger for felling a sacred tree, raises high a knife and fork to devour his own foot.
Poseidon appears dressed as a Mexican wrestler to attack King Ceyx ship at sea. What starts out humorous becomes confining then claustrophobic then frightening as Ceyx is slammed into the water over and over again.
In these thrilling moments our oldest myths come to life as visceral shared experiences. This is the power of Metamorphoses, portraying archetypal characters and mythic stories that are literally thousands of years old in a way that is relevant, moving, and personal.
Metamorphoses, by playwright Mary Zimmerman, is an adaptation of David R. Slavitt's translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (except for the story of Eros and Psyche, which is from Apuleius' novel "Metamorphoses") set in and around a full size swimming pool. The myths selected include both the familiar tales of Midas and Phaeton as well as lesser well-known stories like Pomona and Vertumnus. Metamorphoses weaves its stories with a cunning mix of humor, academic analysis, visceral passion, movement, and sound. The setting is appropriately timeless as Greek gods share the stage with modern day psychotherapists. Although there are many dark moments, the stories are ultimately about the transformational power of desire and the redemptive power of love.
Doug Hara directs this powerful production for the Arden Theatre Company. During the performance the 2,600 gallons of water morph into a massive sea-storm to batter Ceyx and his ship, into a feast for the godless Erysichthon, and a cloistered bed for Eros. There is potent magic where the symbolism of the water (transitional, transformative, purifying) meshes perfectly with the movement and speech of the actors. Metamorphoses is truly an ensemble production and each actor plays many varied roles. The entire cast is strong with Brandon Pierce (Vertumnus and others), Alex Keiper (Alycone and others), and Lindsay Smiling (Erysichthon and others) offering especially moving and memorable performances. The pool is never distracting and even the segments that do not explicitly make use of the water float comfortably in its wake.
Not all of the segments are equally compelling and just a few myths fall short. King Midas' monologue feels awkward and is the only occasion when the use of water seems forced. Phaeton's story of his infamous ride in Apollo's chariot focuses too much on the set up of Phaeton as a spoiled pretty boy mired in perpetual adolescence. The real humor of that segment comes from the coldly insightful dialogue of the Therapist, which is unfortunately rushed through and downplayed.
At its best, Hara's production is visually stunning, intellectually challenging, and emotionally gut wrenching. In the end we are reminded that sometimes the greatest metamorphosis is the one that changes us back to the way we were before. Back to the start but smarter for the journey. As the lights go out on stage the audience sees how that precious return to normalcy impacts the heroes of our myths. As the lights come up in the house we realize we too have transformed, returning to our lives altered by what we have seen.
Metamorphoses runs through Sunday, November 1, 2015, at the Arden Theatre Company on the F. Otto Haas Stage at 40 N. 2ndStreet in Philadelphia. For tickets and information ,call the Arden box office at 215-922-1122, or visit www.ardentheatre.org.