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Metamorphoses

By New York City
The Midas Touch: Metamorphoses(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Midas Touch: Metamorphoses
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
[Editor's Note: Mary Zimmerman's production of Metamorphoses, which played at the Second Stage earlier this season, has reopened at the Circle in the Square. Reprinted below is David Finkle's review, which ran here October 29, 2001. Following the review are Mr. Finkle's observations about the change in venue.]

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The best pool party in town at the moment is Metamorphoses. It may be that no one has ever done a better job of metamorphosing the exiled Roman poet Ovid than Mary Zimmerman, who wrote and directed what must be considered a well-nigh perfect production.

In creating this event, Zimmerman and designer Daniel Ostling have given almost the entire playing area over to a shallow reservoir. Considering that love--romantic and physical--is a unifying theme of Zimmerman's supple treatment, it could be said that she has staged her ineffable theater piece on a waterbed. The rest of Daniel Ostling's breathtaking set consists only of a rectangular wooden walkway framing the pool and a brownstone doorway and stoop set against a roiling, cloud-filled sky. To trumpet Ovid's classic story-theater style, Zimmerman deploys 10 seemingly amphibious actors who wear a series of gorgeous Mara Blumenfeld costumes. Though Ovid wrote up scads of Greek and Roman myths, Zimmerman only treats a handful here--but the ones she's chosen cover as many moods as an ocean before, during, and after a storm.

Zimmerman knows just how to make the on-stage water, and the actors reveling in it, express those moods as both reality and metaphor. For example, when she tells the tale of the ill-fated spouses Ceyx and Alcyon (from whom we get the adjective "halcyon"), she sees to it that a model galleon on which Ceyx is meeting his demise is tossed about. In the story of Erysichthon, who disturbs Ceres by chopping down a sacred tree, the punished fellow churns the water into a glittering fountain that reflects his unquenchable hunger. And in the tale of Phaeton, who envies his sun-king dad, Zimmerman has the lad report his dissatisfaction to a therapist while lying on a yellow plastic float. Narcissus, it is almost needless to say, simply stares into the water before hardening into his self-absorbed pose and being carried off.

Zimmerman is continuously ingenious on multiple levels. Ovid's stories, given here in David Slavitt's 1994 translations, largely have to do with shape-shifting. The many uses of water in this Metamorphoses are only the beginning of the director's magical transformations; ably abetted by her players, she tells some of the stories straight and gently twits others. Phaeton pouring out his problems in psychobabble is Zimmerman's declaration that Freudian thought, as Freud wouldn't deny, is in a way nothing more than myth updated and codified. When Zimmerman illustrates Orpheus's tragically failed rescue of Eurydice from Hades, she tells it as Ovid told it and then as Rainer Maria Rilke reworked it. Again, she makes a point about the timelessness and cogency of universal symbols.

What makes the Greek gods so fascinating, Zimmerman seems to be saying, is how human they are--and, conversely, how godlike some humans can be in their behavior. The old folks Baucis and Philemon, who treat the disguised Zeus and Hermes with such deference, want only to die together; when they're rewarded accordingly, transformed into intertwined trees, their undying love is like the portrait of a godly ideal.

Speaking of humans looking and behaving like gods, Zimmerman's aquatic cast qualifies throughout. The first word in the script is "bodies" and, as they get wet, dry off and then get wet again, this company has got some handsome ones to show off. At different times, all 10 performers serve as narrators and each serves as the leading figure in at least one story of metamorphoses. Though it would be difficult to say that any individual outstrips the others, the first of equals may be Felicity Jones, who plays Aphrodite. Languid, stunning, and darkly whimsical as the goddess of love, she insists on being watched even while she's just standing by. (When Jones played Mariana in Zimmerman's Measure for Measure this summer, some observers thought it was she who should have been cast as Isabella. Here, she proves to be capable of carrying the most demanding of dramas.)

By the end of Metamorphoses, when Baucis and Philemon are joined forever and even Midas has regained his gentler touch, Zimmerman's guiding conviction seems to be the too-pretty notion that love conquers all. That aperçu is not much of a departure from her source, since Ovid also wrote The Art of Love and The Cure of Love. But if there's even a minuscule flaw in this high-dive entertainment, it's that the amor vincit omnia message is a little pat, a little easy. Yes, there's loads of love here, but some of it--the self-love of Narcissus, the incestuous love of Myrrha and Cyniras--is destructive. Aphrodite herself is headstrong, an indication that Ovid believed not so much that love conquers all as that love often confuses all.

Probing her Psyche: Metamorphoses(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Probing her Psyche: Metamorphoses
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In moving seven blocks uptown, Metamorphoses hasn't really metamorphosed; the production is still brilliant, moving, joyous, and unique. But there are some changes which, if anything, improve on what was heretofore all but theatrical perfection. At Second Stage, Daniel Ostling's set, with its much-entered pool and its shape-shifting waters, rested within a proscenium. At Circle in the Square, with its three-quarter-thrust stage, the pool is surrounded on three sides by the audience. Perhaps the most delightful difference between then and now is that, whereas the previous framing of the aquatic play lent it a classical air befitting its Greco-Roman origins, Zimmerman's hour-and-a-half transformation of Ovid now looks as if it is suspended in air. As a result, it's even more magical.

It should also be noted that, because more audience members are closer to the water, more of them get splashed during the most active moments of the production. No one appears to be bothered by this. On the contrary, it's possible that ticket holders may feel refreshed by all the flying water, whether they're in direct line of the drops or just experiencing them vicariously.

The pool, by the way, is longer and narrower than it was at Second Stage. In the previous configuration, its depth was the same from one end to the other; now, it is only few inches deep at the upstage end but something like two feet deep at the downstage end. As the actors walk or swim or fall, new metaphorical meanings about getting in too deep take subliminal effect.

Aside from these physical alterations, I've noticed a few others that may only be imaginary. Is Metamorphoses, which incorporates many light moments, even funnier now? Are Mara Blumenfeld's costumes shown to even greater advantage now that the wooden flats surrounding the pool have taken on the look of a fashion runway? Are the actors, many of them associated with the piece since Zimmerman first conjured it, even more inspired now that they have reached Broadway?

In closing, I'll just say that these pooled resources are still greater than the sum of their considerable parts. I'll also say that the Greek friend I took to this first-rate entertainment, which is probably the year's best, made me promise to point out that Zimmerman has morphed Ovid but that, 200 years ago, the exiled Roman Ovid was the morpher...of Greek myths. Eureka!


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