There should be something downright rejuvenating about an evening based on Ovid’s light and economical myths of human transformation. His poetic Metamorphoses accounts for the evolution of human bodies and forms from the beginning of the world up to his own chaotic era (around the time of Christ’s birth). Countless writers since Chaucer have fallen under the Roman writer’s spell, admiring his literary elegance and stunning command of passion’s psychology; Shakespeare (speaking through his characters) praised the “sweet, witty” Ovid’s uncanny ability to “smell out the odoriferous flowers of fancy” in stories about desire’s infinite guises.
Metamorphoses, originally written and directed by Mary Zimmerman for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre in 1998, adapts nine of the myths for the stage: some familiar (Orpheus and Eurydice, Cupid and Psyche, King Midas), some not (Erysichthon, Alcyon and Ceyx). Zimmerman freely mixes Ovidian text with related material by Rilke and Freud; some sequences combine he said/she said narration with dialogue, others are extended poetic recitations by the 10-actor ensemble. Lookingglass creates its smooth story-theater by blending the ancient and contemporary indiscriminately, but coyness frequently creeps in and makes the mythic trivial. This is partly because Zimmerman showers the production with cutesy colloquialisms; in one sequence, for instance, a yuppie Phaëton (Doug Hara), in shades and neon swimsuit, floats on a raft in his pool while his therapist takes notes from her deck chair. (“Where have you been all my life, Dad?”)
Each tale takes place in or around the 27-foot pool that occupies the stage. It’s surrounded by a deck, an ornate doorway, and a rectangular patch of Magritte-like sky and clouds. Zimmerman has an attentive eye for composition and tries to make water a unifying element by guiding most scenes into the pool—which hosts everything from wrestling and lovemaking to toy boats menaced by tempests. (Those sitting in the front row are provided with pink bath towels for the wetworks.) The pool settings offer a splashy directorial gesture, but with so many recent productions making the same attempt it’s hardly inventive. Here the water links the tales visually but with little metaphorical resonance: Zimmerman intends it as a primal body to which everything belongs and returns, but all the sloshing eventually douses the poetry.
The Lookingglass performances are by turns frolicsome and ardent, qualities magnified by Mara Blumenfeld’s pageant-like costumes. As they play-act the fables, the company pulls props and disguises out of trunks, makes frequent asides, and often mimes gestures to parallel the text literally: The realm of sleep is represented by confetti Zs falling from the ceiling; when Ceyx returns to Alcyon as a bird, the actors flap their arms. The production relies on the company’s delicate trust in the myths’ purity, but the results frequently feel portentous and hollow, like a series of acting-studio improvs placed in fancy side lighting. Comic sequences (Pomona, Phaëton and shrink) tend to collapse under too much jokiness, but Metamorphoses fares better with lyrical texts; Zimmerman locates Ovidian elegance in an artfully sculpted Cupid and Psyche scene, for instance, with the company whispering the words as the couple gently embrace on a raft bathed in red light.
Throughout, however, the production suffers from story-theater’s irony deficiency and reduces these myths where it could provide nuance—as the final sequence makes clear. The tale recounts how the gods Zeus and Hermes came to Earth disguised as old beggars “to see what people were really like.” As these characters discover divinity through humility, King Midas—the crass materialist who forsakes his daughter for gold in the first scene—returns to find her miraculously restored, while the company floats candles in the pool. But concluding with points-of-light humanism seems too easy for Ovid, who wrote deeply aware that an era was ending and that a new, unfathomable world lay ahead. At the performance I attended, the audience rallied behind the pro-love finale with a standing ovation. Given the public mood these days, it’s not surprising that anyone would want to embrace such obvious sentiment, but at the moment we need more rigorous interpretations of our defining myths.