‘Metamorphoses’ loses none of its luster at Lookingglass
At the start of the altogether transcendant “Metamorphoses,” Mary Zimmerman’s enduring theatrical masterpiece based on the Greek and Roman myths so exquisitely rendered by Ovid a full two millennia ago, we hear from a narrator. She is carrying a jar of water that serves as a reminder of the most miraculous metamorphosis — or “transformation” — we can possibly imagine. It is nothing less than that primordial interaction of essential chemicals — which came from who knows where — that became the building blocks of life itself.
Zimmerman first created “Metamorphoses” in 1998 for the Lookingglass Theatre, that group of artists whose creative juices continue to have a rare chemistry of their own. The show has had many incarnations since then, including a particularly memorable New York production that opened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, touched a nerve with its meditation on love, death, loss and memory, and won Zimmerman a Tony Award for her sublime direction.
But even that production is now being eclipsed by the ravishing remount of the 95-minute show that opened this weekend at Lookingglass. Here is a work of pure poetry in motion — a seamless, visually gorgeous act of storytelling that mixes language, movement, sound, color, light and, most crucially, water.
Set designer Daniel Ostling’s “stage” is a great reflecting pool bordered by a narrow wooden walkway, with a great doorway, a handsomely upholstered chair, a large cloudscape and a glittering chandelier serving as iconic markers. And the cast of 10 shape-shifting actors, many of them veterans of earlier versions of this show, dive fearlessly into the pool to enact the many “sea changes” — some harrowing, some easily enchanting. some broadly comic, many with the ache of imperfect love, and all with a sense of “then and now” — endured by gods and mortals alike.
The first myth out of Zimmerman’s Pandora’s box is the story of Midas (Raymond Fox), the wealthy, self-made businessman who wishes everything he touches would turn to gold. And so it does, including, most tragically, his much-neglected young daughter (Anjali Bhimani), whose leap of affection turns tragic. This is not the only myth about greed. Erysichthon (Chris Kipiniak), who has nothing but disregard for the gods and their sacred forests, is punished with the curse of endless hunger, and he ends up devouring himself.
Several distinctly Freudian-laced myths are played out here to marvelous effect, too. In one, Myrrha (Bhimani, a tiny, powerhouse actress who truly dances with the water) falls madly in love with her father (Kipiniak) and is undone by incest. In another (hilarious) sequence, a rich kid, Phaeton (the incomparable, seemingly ageless Doug Hara), consults a shrink (Marilyn Dodds Frank, an actress of knife-sharp wit) to talk about his troubled relationship with his dad, god of the sun, while floating on a “couch” in the form of an inflatable plastic raft. And in the most erotically tinged tale of all, Eros (Hara, nude aside from a pair of feathery white wings) conjoins with Psyche (the alluring Anne Fogarty) in a way that suggests great love invariably leaves the wound of wisdom.
Usman Ally and Louise Lamson — actors of enormous charisma and grace — bring fearsome ferocity to the tale of Ceyx and Alcyon, a couple so distraught by the early death of one that the gods take pity and reunite them as seabirds. Lamson also is beguiling as the girl who embodies spring, who tries to fend off the tireless efforts of her suitor (the fleet and funny Lawrence E. DiStasi), who assumes many disguises.
Zimmerman gives us two very different versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth (starring Ally and Lauren Orkus), with the second a startling commentary on the perceptions of the dead vs. those they leave behind. But ever the romantic, she ends the show with the story of Baucis and Philemon, the old married couple whose love and decency are rewarded when, upon their deaths, they morph into intertwining trees.
Zimmerman’s unique collaborators — Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), T.J. Gerckens (lighting), Andre Pluess (sound) and Willie Schwarz (music) — possess their own transformative tricks. And together, the Lookingglass company casts a spell quite unlike anything else around.