If Canyon Ranch is outside your budget, try a trip to Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” at Second Stage, an experience that’s the theatrical equivalent of a visit to a day spa. With its handsome, uncluttered stage pictures, meditative Eastern music and cast of 10 moving with carefully choreographed grace as they narrate and perform tales from Ovid’s famous mythology, the production is a real tonic for the soul at a time of stress. Approach it as a soothing theatrical oasis in the middle of our increasingly tense urban environment.
The term “oasis” is not just a metaphor, actually. The production is staged in and around a large rectangular wading pool set in a wooden frame; water figures significantly in these tales of transformation, of course. Daniel Ostling’s set otherwise consists simply of a large panel of skyscape signifying the heavens, whence the gods descend to mix with the mortals, and a wooden doorway from which those mortals emerge. Lit by T.J. Gerckens in rich, exotic colors, the whole has the pleasing rightness of a carefully composed abstract painting.
Zimmerman’s playful approach to Ovid’s tales mixes contemporary language and imagery with a more ritualistic formality, and comedy with poetry. Mara Blumenfeld’s evocative costumes are dominated by styles derived from Middle Eastern and Eastern antiquity, but there are also straightforward looks from today — a simple black suit and stylish eyeglasses for King Midas, for instance, whose story opens and closes the evening.
Shortly after Midas sets off on a journey to counteract the curse of his golden touch, we’re introduced to the saga of Alcyon and Ceyx, the first of many stories of love’s endurance in the face of calamity — a theme with all too poignant relevance right now. “These two adored each other and lived in a monotony of happiness,” the tale’s female narrator says, “but nothing in this world is safe.” Separated by death, the devoted lovers are reunited as sea birds, and Louise Lamson’s artful suggestion of this transition from human to avian form is one of many moments in which Zimmerman’s direction takes on the formal contours of choreography.
Zimmerman draws on some other sources for puckish interpretations of some of the myths. Rilke’s rendering of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is placed alongside Ovid’s, and Freudian and Jungian psychology are brought to bear on the story of Phaeton, wittily staged as a therapy session in which the son of sun god Apollo works out his parental issues. “I always knew who he was,” Phaeton says of his distant dad, as he lounges in the pool on an inflatable raft. “I saw him pass by every day, of course — who doesn’t? But I never knew him, and he wasn’t really around.”
Doug Hara’s languidly petulant performance as the misunderstood kid whose attempt to drive his father’s chariot ends unhappily is one of the evening’s most pleasurable (“I set the earth on fire,” he shrugs). Playing several roles each, the attractive cast achieves the easy symbiosis of a dance troupe that’s been working together for years. In the myth of Myrrha, who is tricked by the gods into falling in love with her father, Anjali Bhimani and Chris Kipiniak enact a dramatic sexual encounter as a stylized pas de deux. (Most of the cast members are Zimmerman collaborators who’ve worked on prior productions of “Metamorphoses” or her other classical adaptations, which have been seen widely on the regional theater circuit.)
The production does not always avoid preciousness (some perfs match the writing’s moony patches), and there are moments when the whimsy curdles into cuteness. But Zimmerman has executed her vision with such visual allure and narrative fluidity that qualms tend to subside quickly — like ripples in water, if you will. And at the best moments, when the writing and design and the staging magically coalesce, these stories that date back two millennia are made to take on a vivid, fleshy freshness, as if engravings from a familiar picture book had suddenly sprung to life.