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Pants on Fire's Metamorphoses

Peter Bramley's adaptation of Ovid's tales, set during World War II, is filled with inventiveness and whimsy. logo
Mabel Jones in
Pants on Fire's Metamorphoses
(© Tom Packer)
There's inventiveness and whimsy aplenty in Pants on Fire's Metamophoses, now playing at The Flea Theatre. Conceived and adapted by Peter Bramley, the show -- which won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award -- revisits Ovid's tales of the Gods, in which they transformed themselves (and others), amid the swirl of events between the outbreak of World War II and the Armistice. And while there are times when the show devolves into silly messiness, it is mostly an utterly beguiling and gloriously imaginative undertaking.

In 11 scenes, the piece brings a host of Ovid's tales together -- sometimes mashing them up marvelously. For instance as Juno (the marvelously haughty Jo Dockery) attempts to discern how Jupiter (a suavely dapper Jonathan Davenport) and Io (Mabel Jones) are carrying out their affair, Echo (played with Cockney coarseness by Hannah Pierce) rattles out the latest gossip about the weaving contest between Arachne and Minerva. This sequence also includes one of the most fanciful examples of how Bramley uses 20th-century imagery for the ancient Roman myths: Once Juno has transformed Io into a heifer, Jones dons a gas mask which indicates the bovine's head.

Elsewhere, Bramley imagines that Narcissus (a charismatically preening Tom McCall) falls in love with himself not in a pool of water, but rather at the cinema as he watches his matinee idol self on the silver screen. (There's excellent work throughout from projection designer Jonathan Davenport. Meanwhile, the ardor that Daphne (Eloise Secker) feels for Apollo (also McCall) begins at a crowded cocktail party and ends only after she has transformed into a laurel tree, an image that's beautifully achieved thanks to the cunning (uncredited) design of her cocktail dress.

To be sure, there are some misfires, including the heavy-handed ending, in which Tiresias predicts a new kind of war. Similarly, the sequence involving the battle between Theseus (Alex Packer) and the minotaur, which casts the hero as a soldier recuperating from war injuries, derails despite a promising underlying conceit about the injuries a soldier has sustained while fighting.

It's difficult, though, to fault this misstep, given what follows, a bittersweet musical rendering of Ariadne's transformation into an island, featuring the classic "Am I Blue?" And, it is certainly to composer Lucy Egger's credit that the balance of the songs in the show sound just as authentic to the period as this familiar torch song standard. Additionally, this section of the production -- along with the one that focuses on Cupid (also played by Jones) -- features some of the exceptionally merry creations from puppet designer Samuel Wyer.

The sheer invention of Metamorphoses extends well beyond the ways in which the tales have been transposed to the not-so-distant past. The staging -- which uses just a few rolling panels for shifting scenes -- is not only brisk, but also incredibly cinematic. And when those panels are titled onto their sides, and the company takes turns bobbing up and down from behind them, to indicate Salamachis' pursuit of Hermaphrodtius through a surging river, it's difficult to not be simultaneously impressed and amused.

For tickets to Pants On Fire's Metamorphoses, click here.

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