by Mary Zimmerman
Directed by Sean Harris
at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through July 1
Playhouse on Park in West Hartford is offering theatergoers a rare treat this summer: a chance to hang around the pool and get smarter while doing it. You may not get a tan at this intimate venue, but you will expand your mind while lounging around an inviting, shimmering, and often foreboding, pool of water.
Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s mesmerizing tapestry of Greek and Roman mythology drawn from the writings of Ovid, is one of the most complete evenings of theatre I have ever experienced. After being bewitched by the play in New York, I was fortunate enough to work on the production at Hartford Stage, the final tour stop for Zimmerman’s original staging. Aside from the allure of the mythology, the inventive use of an expansive pool raises the play to another level. A symbol of life, death, baptism, sex and transformation, the water is an additional character in a piece brimming with dozens.
For Playhouse on Park, Metamorphoses is a surprising, ambitious, and ultimately winning risk. The work is smart, funny, daring and profound – not an easy pill to swallow when summer normally draws us to dumb blockbuster films and light beach reads. The theatre’s three-quarter thrust stage is ideal for the play and Sean Harris’s direction clearly nods to the original while providing personal touches that make the production distinct.
It is not easy to encapsulate the show’s plot in a paragraph. Metamorphoses focuses on mythological tales of transformation. Sometimes the stories involve physical transfiguration, but mainly they provide insight into the psychological and emotional transformations provided by love. Some of the myths are funny parables while others are deeply tragic. A few of the most popular ones, like Pandora and Narcissus, are dispensed with quickly and silently. Others, like King Midas and Orpheus and Eurydice, are given room to develop and breathe. The play also delivers some little-known and revelatory tales like the heartbreaking story of Alcyone and Ceyx. It manages to feel simultaneously modern and classic.
Humans, entering from a portal stage right, work out their issues with the assistance or antagonism of the gods, entering from a sliding portal stage left. Atmospheric music is composed and performed alternately on guitar, drums and trumpet by the talented Richard Hollman. The divine and the mortal wrestle in the pool, which is surrounded by decking elegantly designed by Christopher Hoyt.
The casting is spot-on with each actor playing several roles. It is truly difficult to single out individual performances because doing so amounts to pulling a thread from a tightly-knit fabric. As the playbill confusingly lists actors/characters one way and then another (and does not provide actor photographs), I would also be hard-pressed to make sure I cited them 100% correctly. Suffice to say, they are all worthy of praise with many standout moments.
Director Sean Harris creates certain stage pictures (as this play requires effective use of tableaux as well as language) powerfully. The transformation of Alcyone and Ceyx is lovely and the sequence between Myrrha and her father manages to be passionate and disturbing.
I did not find Playhouse on Park’s production as altogether perfect as the New York/Hartford Stage staging (which actually originated at the Lookinglass Theatre, Zimmerman’s home base in Chicago). The theatre’s low ceiling trumps the ability to light the water with true luminescence and a lop-sided floating raft sometimes detracts from the pristine waters.
Certain moments that were jaw-dropping in the earlier production remain effective but are not, shall we say, transformative. The replaying of the Orpheus and Eurydice’s ascent from Hades and the final scene with Philemon and Baucis did not register on the same profoundly emotional scale.
Those reservations aside, Playhouse on Park’s wade into Zimmerman’s complex Metamorphoses is laudable and worthwhile. When most theatres would be content to serve up some summery fluff, this scrappy company is immersing itself and its audience. I recommend that you dive in to the deep end.