Review | Metamorphoses: how love transforms us

Guthrie Theater, through May 19

Steven Epp and Raymond Fox in METAMORPHOSES. Photo by Dan Norman.

I have been hoping to see Metamorphoses by playwright/director Mary Zimmerman for a long time. More than twenty years ago it made a big splash when first produced in Chicago. Metamorphoses has garnered praise and awards ever since and is now at the Guthrie (through May 19) in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It is not an easy play to produce. It requires a large pool filled with water for actors to slosh around in as they reenact several tales from Roman poet Ovid’s epic poetry by the same name.

Zimmerman chose a series of Ovid’s tales centering on love to form her modern play. Some of them are well-known to audiences such as King Midas’ ill-fated love of gold which opens the play. Others are not so familiar. In the Guthrie’s staging of these tales, all are played out in beautifully choreographed movements with spare and oftentimes touching gestures. The set (designed by Daniel Ostling) is evocatively dressed with a single clouded sky projection, a large ornate doorway and a crystal chandelier, in addition to the oversized pool. All this gives the play an expressionistic glaze. One such skillfully staged moment is when King Ceyx waves goodbye to his wife Alcyone. When a storm at sea kills Ceyx, Alcyone mourns his loss. True to the play’s title they end up metamorphosed into birds.

The cast is strong throughout as each member of the ensemble plays several parts. Guthrie audiences will recognize local actors Steven Epp and Felicity Jones Latta. Other standout actors include Raymond Fox, Sango Tajima and Benjamin T. Ismail.

On opening night, the pacing of Metamorphoses seemed a little slow. The play depends on several actors taking their turn as narrator, and the ponderous nature of this approach seemed to drag the energy down. The actors are forced to perform in their water-soaked costumes and plop themselves down in a foot of water so often that the technique begins to seem silly at times rather than inspired. Maybe so many other plays have employed a water feature on stage in the past twenty-five years that it no longer seems as innovative as it once did.

That said, Metamorphoses is a moving production and writer/director Zimmerman deserves credit for producing a complex play out of a string of stories that hang together with a true narrative arc. She artfully develops the theme of love: how it transforms us, consumes us, and sometimes causes us to grieve.

One last note: this play should come with a trigger warning for incest. About an hour into the show, Myrrha, cursed by goddess Aphrodite for being too particular about whom she will marry, is forced to seduce her father. This is graphically portrayed on stage, not just once, but twice. The father remains blameless in this tale but Myrrha is said to be “guilty but unashamed.” She dies for her desire for freedom to choose her own husband. Two thousand years after Ovid the playwright might seriously consider a rewrite of this hoary old section of the play.

Please visit Mari’s informational website.


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