(Handout photo, Teresa Wood )
About 2000 years ago, the Roman poet Ovid completed “Metamorphoses,” his chronicle of ancient gods and goddesses, the mortals who worshiped or dared them, and the transformations they experienced. In this epic work, Ovid delivered a simple, comforting message: “All things change, but nothing dies.”
In the late 1990s, playwright and director Mary Zimmerman unveiled a compelling treatment of Ovid’s magnum opus, also titled “Metamorphoses,” which went on to become one of her most admired and performed creations.
The premiere was given by Chicago’s ÖLookingglass Theatre Company, whose recent revival is now being presented at Arena Stage in a sterling production that marks the 90-minute play’s first presentation in the round.
Zimmerman, using David Slavitt’s translation of Ovid’s text, has fashioned a seamless flow of colorfully detailed scenes that form a journey from folly to wisdom, selfishness to selflessness. That journey is meant to take place in and around a giant pool of water. This production, directed by the playwright and beautifully designed by Daniel Ostling, emphatically and brilliantly embraces that element.
So much mythology is tied up with water — the fatal glance into it by Narcissus, the victims of Poseidon’s wrath on the sea, the River Styx, etc. Then there are the symbolic associations of water with such things as baptism, purification and healing. All of this resonates with exquisite visual impact at Arena Stage.
Each story gains extra vibrancy from the watery environment alone (viscerally for those sitting within splash range). The scene of Orpheus pleading for his beloved Eurydice becomes all the more vivid when a torrential stream opens up above his head, drenching him as he kneels in the pool.
The dialogue blends the poetic and the conversational. There is plenty of humor, too, as when the god of sleep is roused. When the tales are at their darkest — Myrrha’s incestuous passion for her father — the production delivers a strong jolt.
When the tales are at their darkest — the incestuous passion Myrrha feels for her father; the tragedy of Alcyon and Ceyx, turned into seabirds so their interrupted love can resume — the production delivers a strong jolt.
In the closing minutes, things get increasingly profound, starting with the story of Psyche and Eros, demonstrating how genuine love has no interest in the visible surface.
Then there’s the poignant story of Baucis and Philemon, who, having gladly opened their doors to two beggars — gods in disguise — are granted a wish. They ask only for the privilege of being able to die at the same hour, so that neither will know grief for long or have to bury the other.
As the two are turned into intertwining trees (eloquent, balletic motions convey the transformation), a spell seems to be cast over the whole theater. In that moment, any remaining distance between us and the mythic figures is bridged.
The sense of connection continues magically through the closing moments, when the play comes full circle, and the pool, now lit by floating candles, seems at once vast and intimate.
All of the actors (several have a long history performing the piece) assume multiple roles. Standouts include Doug Hara, especially in his scene as a valley boy version of Phaeton, floating on a raft in bright swimming trunks while confiding in his therapist (Lisa Tejero) about relationship issues with his father Apollo.
Geoff Packard’s contributions as Apollo in that scene include singing, quite sweetly, the tenor aria from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” — a surreal, witty and marvelous moment.
Raymond Fox flourishes as Midas, here sounding like a clueless spokesman for all the world’s one-percenters. Louise Lamson and Packard, as the ill-fated Alcyon and Ceyx, generate considerable poetic chemistry.
In addition to the rest of the finely matched cast, the production has the benefit of cleverly costuming by Mara Blumenfeld, refined lighting by T. J. Gerckens and richly atmospheric sound design by Andre Pluess. It all adds up to an imaginative immersion in myth, and a reminder of the transformative power of theater.
"Metamorphoses" runs through March 17.