Review: METAMORPHOSES at Folger Theatre

Folger Theatre dazzles with a new take on Mary Zimmerman's famous work.

By: May. 14, 2024
Review: METAMORPHOSES at Folger Theatre
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According to Webster’s Dictionary, metamorphose is defined in several, but very similar, ways. First, as a transitive verb, it means “to change into a different physical form especially by supernatural means” or “to change strikingly the appearance or character of.” As an intransitive verb, it means “to undergo metamorphosis” or “to become transformed.” So, from these definitions, we can infer that the title of Mary Zimmerman’s play METAMORPHOSES, which is now playing until June 16 at DC’s Folger Theatre, foreshadows several transformations or metamorphosis throughout. And, indeed, this is true in spades. 

Zimmerman’s play is based on Ovid’s work that spanned fifteen books. It’s an epic narrative that starts at the origin of the world and continues up to the time of Ovid. For those without weeks of free time to watch all of this dramatized on stage, don’t fret. The work is not all-encompassing but instead an appetizer platter of sorts. The play is broken up into vignettes and composed of digestible 10-15 minute mini-stories showcasing some of the more positive universal themes of humankind like love, compassion, and loyalty. However, METAMORPHOSES intentionally includes the uglier side of humankind too. Greed, jealousy, and pride have a place in this play just as they do in our own lives. 

Zimmerman’s play was a hit when it first premiered professionally in 1998 after having been created alongside students at Northwestern. Its subsequent tour through many regional houses across the country and Broadway run in 2002 saw more success including a Tony Award for Best Director for Zimmerman. 

I provide this context all to say that producing a play regionally that has consistently received critical praise should give theatres a great starting point and a relatively high floor for success. Put up the play, stay true to the story, and the great vibes are sure to follow. I give credit to Folger Theatre for not simply following this model and instead challenging itself to provide a new perspective - something that is very difficult to do successfully in today’s regional theatre.

Folger’s production frames these well-known stories with the African diaspora and the Black experience in our own country. Suddenly, these timeless stories are inclusive of a myriad of cultures spanning the entire world. We rarely see these myths and stories centering the Black experience, and it’s a welcomed and unexpected upgrade for this already strong piece. Luckily for DC audiences, this big swing by Folger is a resounding and unquestionable success. It’s a new perspective that is consistent, well-executed, and powerful. It’s the best kind of theatre - the kind that will leave you thinking about the piece for days as I am still.

Folger places the responsibility of guiding this ship in the capable hands of multi-hyphenate artist, Psalmayene 24, who is consistently attached to exciting and electric work in the city. He, along with an exceptionally talented ensemble cast, approaches the piece with care, thought, and true artistry. The audience can’t help but feel welcomed into this celebration of not only Black but also of human culture. While we’re framed through the Black experience, the stories, the people, and the themes are univrsal. We see Black artists on stage, but we recognize the emotions, the obstacles, and the overall human experience regardless of whatever color we are. It’s a bold statement by Folger, and an important one at that. 

In an interview, Zimmerman explains that she never intended to tell the stories in the same order as they are in the source material. She adds that they couldn’t possibly include every part of the collection either. As such, the action jumps across the fifteen books at random and even includes one tale - that of Eros and Psyche - that was not even part of Ovid’s masterpiece. There’s no rules or road map for this piece, but this doesn’t take anything away from the play’s power. 

Perhaps following suit from Zimmerman, this production takes liberties and begins outside of the world of Ovid’s work. Folger’s version starts on a visually stunning journey dramatizing the American Black experience from life in Africa to the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to the pains and horrors of slavery in this country all the way to today’s continued violence against Black people. Just as Ovid meant to tell a story from the beginning of his people to his present-day, Folger has done the same with Black people. It’s a short story told completely through dance and serves as a sort of preface to the rest of the piece. It’s a statement that announces the framing of Black culture and welcomes us to join this journey. 

From here, we enter into the familiar territory of Ovid’s work. We observe the greediness and subsequent regret and pain of King Midas. We laugh along with the joyous and jovial modern take on Bacchus. We mourn Alcyone’s loss of her beloved Ceyx and cry tears of joy for the couple’s eternal love. And, for the fans of contemporary musical theatre, we even get to compare and contrast METAMORPHOSES’ take on the heartbreaking story of Orpheus to the one which has been popularized by the hit musical HADESTOWN. Instead of a guitar-strumming boy ripped from an emo-punk music video from 2003, however, Orpheus is instead presented as a James Brown-Michael Jackson-Prince hybrid before he journeys to the underworld for his beloved Eurydice. 

Throughout these tales, beautiful thru lines emerge. In every parable, for instance, there is some element of water present. Fans of the original production will quickly recognize there is no iconic pool in the middle of the stage, which is entirely understandable considering the historic venue at Folger. Perhaps the pool was not part of the renovation plan. Regardless, water plays a central part in nearly every scene whether it be to cleanse one’s mistakes or provide nourishment to the body and soul. Folger works around the absence of the pool skillfully despite the fact this strays from Zimmerman’s original vision to have the actors quite literally in and around a pool. 

Then, of course, there is the obvious thru line - the metamorphoses itself. Every vignette showcases some kind of major transformation. Whether it be a change of heart, of physical form, or of mind and soul, every tale has a definitive turning point where the people, the places, and things around them will never be the same. It’s a series of inflection points that can’t help but move the audience and delivers the punch that has made this piece one of Zimmerman’s most frequently produced. 

Additionally, we have the thru line of love. It permeates the entire piece and comes in many forms - love for a daughter, a son, a parent, or a spouse, among others. As one character remarks, “Wherever love goes, there we find our soul.” And then there’s the most memorable quote of the entire play, “Let me die the moment my love dies. Let me not outlive my own capacity to love. Let me die still loving, and so, never die.” The adaptation is full of this kind of poetry that soars from the stage and straight into the hearts of the audience. 

Besides being an excellent piece of theatre showcasing a welcomed fresh perspective executed flawlessly by skilled artists, Folger’s METAMORPHOSES is somehow the first all-Black cast in the theatre’s history. The piece is ensemble-driven, but each artist has several features throughout to help tell each story. They inhabit different gods and mortals, animals, and even bodies of water. The ensemble includes Edwin Brown III, Renea S. Brown, DeJeanette Horne, Yesenia Iglesias, Billie Kirshawn, Manu Kumasi, Jon Hudson Odom, Kalen Robinson, Gerrad Taylor, and Renee Elizabeth Wilson. Special mention goes to Miss Kitty as the Water Nymph who acts as a sort of silent narrator throughout the piece. Miss Kitty’s story-through-dance enhances each scene and is one of the more physically demanding roles of the evening. However, the collective is truly what makes this piece special. 

According to a press release by Folger, director Psalmayene 24 says the decision to use an all-Black cast was quite intentional. Inspired by the police killing of Tyre Nichols, Psalmayene 24 spent time reflecting on “the mechanisms of American power [that] still devalue Black life.” With this ensemble performing universal stories, he hoped that DC audiences would “gain a greater awareness and appreciation of the universal commonalities that bind us all.” All of us as human beings go through our own metamorphoses several times throughout our lives, and these transformations transcend race, color, and creed. It’s a strong and effective message that elevates the piece from good to great. 

As mentioned, METAMORPHOSES is expertly crafted by the direction of Psalmayene 24. Other members of the creative team include Lawrence E. Moten III (Scenic Designer), Mika Eubanks (Costume Designer), William K. D’Eugenio (Lighting Designer), Nick Hernandez (Composer & Sound Design), Tony Thomas (Choreographer), Faedra Chatard Carpenter (Dramaturg), Kaja Dunn (Resident Intimacy Director & Cultural Consultant), Jeanette Christensen (Asst. Costume Designer), Deb Thomas (Props Designer), and Lauren Pekel (Production Stage Manager). 

Audiences should make time to see Folger’s newest production before it closes on June 16, 2024 at the theatre’s newly renovated space on Capitol St. Though the source material is massive, the play runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. 

PHOTO CREDIT: The cast of Mary Zimmerman’s METAMORPHOSES, on stage at Folger Theatre, May 7 - June 16, 2024.

Photo Credit: Brittany Diliberto Photography.


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