BWW Reviews: Mary Zimmerman's METAMORPHOSES Mesmerizes at Arena Stage
"Myths are public dreams," wrote the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell, "and dreams are personal myths"-a sentiment echoed by the therapist in Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, now playing at Arena Stage. Yet, Zimmerman's Metamorphoses is so much more than dream. It is theatre as ritual, as rite of passage deep as an archetype, humorous as a limerick, and as universal as our need to love. It is a full-scale baptism in the journey of the soul as it finds its way to love. If you let yourself, especially if get front row seats, you'll get more than a gentle sprinkle of this production's amazing theatrics; you and your companion will get splashed in the waters of redemption.
In America today, dreams entertain, yet rarely inform us; they are the stuff of Saturday Night Live skits, not the stuff around which lives might gather. Zimmerman's trademark as a playwright and a director, however, is to reach into our collective past, into the Thousand and One Nights, into Jason and the Argonauts, into the Odyssey; and from these public dreams usher forth theatrical experiences as profound as they are delightful, as contemporary as they are of a world beyond modernity.
If you've never seen a production of Metamorphoses, you must do everything in your power to get a ticket to Arena. For it is likely unlike anything you have ever seen. Even if you have had the privilege of seeing Zimmerman's Metamorphoses before, as I did with my then nine-year-old son at Off-Broadway's Second Stage shortly after 9/11 (our small gesture of solidarity with that wounded city), witnessing Metamorphoses in the round, close up and personal, is a theatrical memory for life.
With its superb 10-person cast, some of whom have been with the show since its inception, this production recreates theatrically a dozen or so tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The journey begins as a young initiate in life's ritual opines about the drudgery of washing clothes and the glory of wealth. Her older comrade in housework responds by way of the story of King Midas.
A man in a suit (the dryly comic Raymond Fox) sits barefoot on a chair in a shallow pool boasting of his tremendous wealth, while shushing his daughter as she plays nearby. A drunk partier stumbles in and falls face first into the water. The rich man-King Midas, we realize-has his servant save the man from drowning. Bacchus (Dionysus for those Greek scholars) appears and thanks Midas, granting him one wish. Ever arrogant in his wealth, Midas demands the ability to turn all that he touches into gold. "Bad idea," Bacchus warns him, but Midas is undeterred, and soon his daughter (Ashleigh Lathrop) hugs him and turns to gold, a statue in perpetual embrace. Midas' journey of redemption begins.
Tales of transformation, tales of love, each story from Ovid's epic poem stands by itself. Yet each is also a part of a larger narrative of our search for love, in all its forms, with all its outcomes. Be it the little known story of the young lovers Alcyone and Ceyx (achingly played by Louise Lamson and Geoff Packard), in which Ceyx drowns at sea leaving Alcyone mad with grief; or the famous story of the musician Orpheus and bride Eurydice (lyrically played by Geoff Packard and Lauren Orkus), felled by a viper on their wedding day; or the much studied tale of Eros and Psyche (indelibly played by Doug Hara and Tempe Thomas) that deftly describes the process whereby the soul heals itself and its passion-Metamorphoses reveals to its audience the full complexity of what it means to be human and yearning to love.
Each cast member plays multiple characters, each distinct and iconic, personifying this ensemble's remarkable range. Among these resonant characters were Doug Hara's Phaeton, illegitimate son of the sun god Apollo; Ashleigh Lathrop's Myrrha, the daughter tormented by her forbidden love for her father, and Hunger, clinging to the back of Erysichthon; and Fox's King Midas to Derek Hasenstab's ingenuous Virtumnus, the shy god who woos the spirited wood nymph. Hara's Phaeton is perfect as the spoiled child of the rich and famous as he lies on a float in a swimming pool explaining to his therapist (crisply played Lisa Tejero) his agonized relationship with his godly father. Lathrop's Myrrha, on the other hand, embodies the guilt of forbidden desire as she struggles to resist its temptation. The watery dance that she later does with her father (robustly played by Chris Kipiniak) is just one example of the beautiful physical theatre that is Metamorphoses. Leavened with humor again and again, this production seduces its audience as well with wonderfully comedic performances, from Raymond Fox's King Midas to Derek Hasenstab's ingenuous Virtumnus who does every thing possible to win the attention of Louise Lamson's hop skipping Pomona except be himself.
The real star of this production, however, is the collective imagination of its cast and crew and its director, Mary Zimmerman, and her extraordinary production team. Set designer Daniel Ostling, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, lighting designer T.J. Gerckens, sound designer Andre Pluess, and original music composition by Willy Schwarz-all of whom also designed the show for its Broadway and/or Second Stage runs-recreated their ritualistic scenography for the Arena production. Costumer Blumenfeld's costumes visually delighted and the scene painting of clouds and sky shimmered transcendent. In this age of individual awards and celebrities, the most refreshing splash of all was the collaborative theatricality on display at Arena Stage this Valentine's Day-to be sure, a well chosen opening date for this show about love and its vicissitudes.
Produced in association with Lookingglass Theatre Company, Metamorphoses charms as much as it instructs, offering Washington audiences-swamped as we are in the material waters of politics and power-a chance to bathe in a different pond. In this pond, an old couple, humble and poor, opens their home to two wandering gods, offering them sustenance and shelter, and virtue at last is rewarded. With this Metamorphoses, if we might surrender our obsession with safety, security, and material want, then we might gain a chance to discover what our soul really needs: the ability to love.
Photo Credit: Teresa Wood.