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BWW Reviews: THE TEMPEST and METAMORPHOSES Offer Poolside Theater in Chapel Hill

Continuing their annual tradition of offering two plays in rotating repertory, PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill is offering Shakespeare's The Tempest and Zimmerman's Metamorphoses. Even better, the audience gets to sit poolside.

The Tempest is a Shakespeare comedy of shipwreck, magic, new love, and settling scores. Prospero and his daughter Miranda, having been banished to a remote island a dozen years prior, finally have visitors when Prospero stirs up a storm to bring those who banished him to the island (some of them, members of his own family). One can imagine the sort of trouble which ensues when Prospero, Miranda, their malformed slave Caliban, and the magical sprite Ariel face the ship's passengers, including royals, drunks, and a handsome prince. Long story short, things get hilariously complicated.

Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman's Tony-winning stage adaptation of Ovid's epic poem, follows a nonlinear structure as it tells different, but related stories, largely from the canon of Greek mythology. It includes such famous stories as King Midas and his golden touch, and less well-known stories featuring an array of Greek folklore characters and themes.

Why these two shows together? It turns out, they have a lot in common. Of course, both have a heavy emphasis on water, which is evident in the shared set. Additionally, the themes of new love, revenge, and justice echo throughout. Lastly, Shakespeare was heavily influenced by (or, more specifically, copied verbatim) Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses while writing The Tempest.

I have always lauded PlayMakers Repertory for their impeccable sets - they are batting .1000 in scenic design as far as I'm concerned, and this time, they really outdid themselves. The focal point of the set is a fifteen-ton swimming pool. You read that right: a swimming pool. Water is a prevalent theme in both shows, and this literal, visceral interpretation of water is a risk which really pays off for PlayMakers. Though certainly used throughout The Tempest, and effectively so, its use is most compelling, innovative, and even delightfully provocative in Metamorphoses. Without ruining too many details, I must say that the way that the pool, a large cloth, and several actors come together to create the River Styx is hauntingly brilliant. The swimming pool isn't the only thing wonderful about the set. The other scenic details complement the pool without overwhelming it, creating a set which, despite having one major striking feature, feels balanced, appropriate, and light.

The talented cast of actors did not disappoint - several actors even appear in both productions. One such actor, Brandon Garegnani, made quite an impact as Ferdinand in The Tempest and as the Sixth Man in Metamorphoses, playing characters as vastly different as Hades, who rules the underworld, and Vertumnus, who is so in love he disguises himself many times to try to woo his ideal woman, Pomona. Garegnani's Ferdinand and Vertumnus are utterly charming. He has an impeccable knack for physical comedy, and when his Ferdinand is combined with Caroline Strange as Miranda, the two absolutely capitalize on Shakespeare's words to create a chemistry which is at the same time relatable and hilarious. The two together are endearing and a joy to watch.

Strange is another example (out of many I could list) of actors showing their depth across the two shows, as she goes from a young woman in love with the third man she's ever met to embodying hunger as it plagues Erysichthon. The cast as a whole is able, like Strange, to show more than one dimension of their acting in Metamorphoses, which is quite fun for audiences.

The only element which fell short of the mark for me was a casting choice. The decision to cast women in four male roles in The Tempest (arguably three, though sprite Ariel is written as a male, is not actually human) is lost on me. I love a good commentary on gender, and there are plenty of times when gender-bending in the theater is able to enhance a show by introducing a dialogue about gender, but in this instance, the gender swap provides no commentary, starts no dialogue. It isn't awful - the show is still enjoyable, but it leaves the audience a bit confused. Even assuming that it was an attempt to give a wink to "breeches roles" or "pants roles" occasionally seen in opera, those roles were generally played by women because grown men would be ill-suited for the vocal range of the show (think a woman playing an adolescent boy - a modern example would be the frequent casting of a woman to play Peter Pan), and the nod falls short. While these women are talented actors and play the roles very well, the casting choice feels gimmicky and doesn't serve the purpose of adding something to the play. Especially since the choice wasn't echoed in the partner production, Metamorphoses, the impact falls flat.

Both shows make the most of the swimming pool, other creative/design elements (including a very organic approach to sound design), the talented cast, and the text at hand to provide two worthwhile evenings of theater. This winning combination is one you'll want to take advantage of.

The Tempest and Metamorphoses run through December 8. For tickets and more information, visit www.playmakersrep.org.


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