Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” provides an elegant recounting of some familiar, and some not-so-familiar, Greek myths, and contemplates — in distinctly modern, highly evocative stagecraft — the relevance of these classical tales to our contemporary world. It succeeds on many levels. Perhaps more an enchantment than a play proper, the piece boasts an exquisite set design, dominated by a shallow pool of water, and an especially superb ensemble, that embodies not just the mythic human figures, but also elements of life such as hunger and sleep.
Daniel Ostling’s set comprises three distinct areas: the pool of water, surrounded by a square border providing solid ground for the main playing space; a large but contained backdrop of a cloudy sky, above which the characters representing gods can appear; and a large double door, antique yet ageless, with a few steps in front of it. These areas represent the mostly liquid earth, the sky and the imagination. This ambitious yet surprisingly simple set-up — along with Mara Blumenfeld’s austere, gorgeous costumes — allows for a wide variety of tone within the stories. Splashing water, for example, can be used for humor, but can also evoke a deadly storm or the underlying passion of a forbidden sexual encounter.
The tale of King Midas starts the evening, as a young woman tells the story to two friends. Midas (Raymond Fox), dressed in a tuxedo and speaking with a snobbish voice, comes across as a contemporary mogul more than an ancient king. Many of the other pieces have a similarly modern flavor, and Zimmerman nicely captures the timelessness of the stories without belaboring the point.
There is an intellectual, rarefied flavor to much of “Metamorphoses,” and sometimes it can be a bit dense, but its primary attraction — the spectacle it provides — is very accessible. The most emotionally powerful moments involve images that make the figurative literal. Alcyon (Louise Lamson), transforms into a bird upon discovering her husband’s corpse. Myrrha (Anjali Bhimani), whom Aphrodite tortures by having her fall impossibly in love with her own father, “dissolves in tears,” and, using no special effects at all, she melts into the water in an ending of painful beauty. And, in perhaps the most stunning visual of all, Orpheus (Erik Lochtefeld) “drowns in grief,” as a spotlight of water cascades over him.
The most cleverly contemporary take on Ovid’s work involves the myth of Phaeton, Apollo’s progeny and therefore literally the son of the sun, who flew his father’s chariot too close to the Earth and crashed. Here, Phaeton (Doug Hara) lies on a floating bed in a bathing suit, relating his story to a therapist, who then “interprets” the tale for the audience in psychology-speak.
This particular story comes off with a special wit — thanks in large measure to Hara, who stands out among the talented cast — and makes the very interesting point, as related by the therapist, that “myths are the earliest form of science,” and that for all our efforts at understanding the human unconscious we have in many ways never improved upon these simple narratives.
Plenty of effective humor here compensates for the dark qualities of the myths (“Almost none of these stories have happy endings,” mourns a character listening to the tales). On occasion, though, the self-consciousness of the playing distracts and impedes the visceral power of the myths. And while many of the thematic elements of the stories overlap, there is no guiding throughline, which keeps the evening from becoming more than the sum of its many beautiful parts. There are times when it seems “Metamorphoses” will become a truly transcendent work, but that potential is never fully achieved. It would possibly be more exciting to see Zimmerman apply her talents to a single full-length story, especially a classical Greek play.
Overall, however, this is a satisfying theatrical experience, an examination of the irrational and the ambiguous aspects of humanity as they’ve been expressed in classical short-story form. “It has been said that myths are public dreams,” a performer tells us toward the end, before adding, “dreams are private myths.” At once universal and personal, ”Metamorphoses” may not be perfect, but it certainly creates a memorable dreamscape.