By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 5/17/22 – This past weekend was the opening of a revival of Metamorphoses, the multiple award-winning theatrical event by playwright Mary Zimmerman at A Noise Within Theatre in Pasadena. Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, nine luminous tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses come to life in a fine fabric of stagecraft in this charming re-envisioning of ancient Greek myths for a modern audience. Metamorphoses is set entirely in and around an on-stage swimming pool. Adapted from David R. Slavitt’s free-verse translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid, the play’s locations, like the characters, are constantly shifting and transforming – from a swimming pool, to a wash basin, to the River Styx, to the sea. Gods and mortals alike endure love, loss, and transformation – all while immersed in a pool of water.
Zimmerman intended Metamorphoses to build on a foundation of images, as a way of building “a poetic bridge between myth and modernism” between Greek myth and modern American culture. The central idea of Metamorphoses is the concept of change. To “metamorphose” means the striking change in appearance or character of something. Each story contains at least one example. The theme of change is expressed by the play’s use of water. The set includes a centrally placed pool, into which characters move and leave as they are transformed. The water is used for different functions throughout Metamorphoses, and it is described as the most protean (diverse or varied) of the elements. In reworking an earlier version of the play entitled Metamorphoses, Six Myths, into its final form, Zimmerman’s most significant change was the addition of the central pool.
Metamorphoses premiered in 1998 at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, then went on to a Broadway production in 2002 that was nominated for a Tony® Award (Zimmerman won for direction), and garnered Drama Desk, Drama League and Lucille Lortel awards for “Best Play.” This is the second play by Mary Zimmerman to be done by the resident artists at A Noise Within, as her Argonautika was staged here in 2019. Performances of Metamorphoses take place May 14 through June 5 on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, go to: https://secure.anoisewithin.org/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=6661225E-1751-48CD-8098-21D784EF52A8
Mary Zimmerman is a writer and director specializing in the adaptation of classic stories of world literature for the stage. Her work is known for its striking visual nature, vivid storytelling and sensitivity to the original text. “I like great sweeps of time and place, and I like obsessive love and unrequited love,” said Zimmerman in an interview. “The water is sexy and sensual and beautiful. It stands in for very literal things – they row in it – but it’s also metaphorical. And sometimes it’s just very, very funny.” The play uses a combination of presentational and representational forms, including the Vertumnus and Pomona scene, which is both acted out and tells the story of Myrrha. For the most part, the play follows a linear technique by having the sequence of events in each individual story follow a rational chronological timeline. The Orpheus scene strays from this, by repeating a portion of the same scene numerous times to emphasize the torment of his loss.
The theatre stage is dominated by the pool of water in the center, around which most of the scenes occur, as designed by François-Pierre Couture. The setting of the play isn’t limited to just one specific location. For example, the pool on stage transforms from the luxurious swimming pool of nouveau riche Midas, the ocean in which Ceyx drowns, the food devoured by Erysichthon, Narcissus’ mirror, a basin to hold Myrrha’s tears, and the river Styx” and that the pool, like the stories transcend realistic thinking and are suspended in space and time. hZimmerman’s theatrical version of selected tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is staged as a series of vignettes, which opens with the creation of the world, as explained by our world of order came from chaos – as explained by a Woman by the Water, a Scientist, and Zeus, King of the Gods.
Story One: Midas: The story is framed by the narration of three laundresses who tell the story of King Midas, a very rich man. Midas loves to brag about his wealth and tell his story of his business prowess – despite the distraction of his silly daughter, who is making noise on stage bouncing a ball or jump-roping. After Midas shuns his daughter for being too disruptive during his speech about caring for his family, a drunken Silenus (Kasey Mahaffy) enters and speaks of a distant land capable of granting eternal life. Silenus later falls asleep, and Midas shelters him in the cabana. Of course, Silenus is a friend of Bacchus, the god of wine, drama, and festivity. He grants Midas a wish in exchange for saving Silenus from drowning. When Bacchus comes to retrieve Silenus, he grants Midas a wish for his gracious care of Silenus. Bacchus grants Midas’ wish that he be able to turn anything he touches into gold. Midas accidentally turns his beloved daughter into gold and is told by Bacchus to seek a mystic pool, which will restore him to normal. Midas leaves on his quest and we will see Midas again at the end of the entire play.
Story Two: Alcyone and Ceyx: Aphrodite (Sydney A. Mason) is the goddess of love and beauty. She likes to intervene in the love affairs of mortals. Alcyone (Trisha Miller) was the beautiful young wife of Ceyx (DeJuan Christopher), the son of Phosphorus, who lives in his kingdom along the Black Sea. He is determined to go on a voyage to a far-away oracle but Ceyx has a bad feeling about such a trip, as her father Aeolos, keeper of the wind and storms, is very unpredictable. Of course, Alcyone does encounter a terrible storm at sea with his fellow shipmates and drowns. Meanwhile Alcyone sleeps restlessly, wondering if and when Alcyone might return. She keeps looking out to sea, hoping to stop the sails of his ship but there is nothing. She wonders if he is still alive. Aphrodite is concerned about the pining of Alcyone for Ceyx and decides to do something to help out Alcyone so they might reunite. She calls up Iris (Nicole Javier), the goddess of the rainbow and Morpheus, the god of Sleep, to conjure up a spectral image of Ceyx that visits Alcyone in her sleep and tells her of his fate at sea. Ovid also adds the detail of her seeing his body washed up onshore before she throws herself into the sea in her grief. Out of compassion, the gods changed them both into common kingfishers, or “halcyon birds,” named after her.
Story Three: Erysichthon: Erysichthon was a proud King of Thessaly. Erysichthon (Kasey Mahaffy) once ordered all trees in the sacred grove of Demeter to be cut down. One huge oak was covered with votive wreaths, a symbol of every prayer Demeter had granted, and so the men refused to cut it down. Erysichthon grabbed an axe and cut it down himself, killing a dryad nymph in the process. The nymph’s dying words were a curse on Erysichthon. Demeter responded to the nymph’s curse and punished him by entreating Limos (here a female deity), the spirit of unrelenting and insatiable hunger, to place herself in his stomach. In this production, a lithe female dancer (Erika Soto) wraps herself around the body of Erysichthon, no matter how he tries to move. Food acted like fuel on a fire: The more he ate, the hungrier he got. Erysichthon sold all his possessions to buy food, but was still hungry. At last, he sold his own daughter Mestra into slavery. Mestra was freed from slavery by her former lover Poseidon, who gave her the gift of shape-shifting into any creature at will to escape her bonds. Erysichthon used her shape-shifting ability to sell her numerous times to make money to feed himself, but no amount of food was enough. Eventually, Erysichthon ate himself in hunger. Nothing of him remained the following morning.
Story Four: Orpheus & Eurydice: We start out with the story of Orpheus (Rafael Goldstein), the ancient Greek legendary hero endowed with superhuman musical skills. As such, he is profoundly idealistic, capable of deep love, and also somewhat impractical. Orpheus’s troubles start on what should be the happiest day of his life: his marriage to a young woman named Eurydice (Erika Soto). Unfortunately, because Hymen (the god of marriage) wears a sour expression during their wedding, their marriage is cursed from the beginning. Soon afterwards, Eurydice steps on a poisonous snake and dies. At this point, Orpheus shows his incredible devotion by going down to the Underworld and demanding to have her back. He also shows off his impressive singing abilities when he is able to charm the Underworld’s fearsome inhabitants. He even charms Hades, the God of the Underworld (Geoff Elliott) and his wife Persephone (Cassandra Marie Murphy), who spends 7 months each year living in Hades. Hades agrees to let Hermes, the messenger of the gods, take Eurydice back from Hades – provided that Orpheus does not look back at her the entire time he is leading her up to daylight. Orpheus almost succeeds – but, at the last minute, his devotion and impracticality combine, with disastrous results. Afraid that she isn’t behind him, Orpheus turns back at the last minute – and she vanishes.
The action is repeated several times, resembling the memory that Orpheus will have forever of losing his bride. The second time is told from the point of view of Eurydice, in the style of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke from 1908. After an eternity of this repeated action, Eurydice becomes forgetful and fragile, no longer remembering Orpheus. She returns to the Underworld ignorant of Orpheus, the man she loved so long ago.
Narcissus Interlude: A brief scene showing Narcissus catching a glimpse of his own reflection in a pool. Enthralled, he becomes frozen. The actors replace him with a narcissus plant.
Story Five: Vertumnus and Pomona: This rather comic tale of Vertumnus and Pomona is the story of wood nymph named Pomona (Trisha Miller) who is pursued by Vertumnus (De Juan Christopher), the God of Springtime, who is intent on earning the lover of Pomona. Pomona loves her flowers and trees, but pays no heed to Vertumnus. So, he decides to try a series of disguises in order to approach her. None of the disguises seem to work, until he dons a dress and wig as an old woman and pretends to share Pomona’s interest in gardening. Pomona is no fool but sees that Vertumnus’ interest is real and eventually acknowledges his love.
Story Six: Myrrha: Once again Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty and Love interferes with human affairs because she is upset that Myrrha (Erika Soto), daughter of Cinyras ignores all of the prospective suitors for her hand, Myrrha is cursed by Aphrodite with a lust for her father. She says that she is only interested in marrying a man with the qualities of her father Cinyras (Geoff Elliott). Myrrha has a nursemaid (Cassandra Marie Murphy) who devises a plan to sneak Myrrha into her father’s bed chamber in the dark of night and, having blindfolded him, promises to bring him a young woman for a sexual encounter. With the help of her Nursemaid, Myrrha has three sexual encounters with her father, each time keeping him inebriated and blind so he would not know it’s her. The third time Cinyras takes off his blindfold and tries to strangle Myrrha, who escapes and is never seen again.
Story Seven: Phaeton: Phaeton (Kasey Mahaffy) was the son of a water nymph, Clymene, and, allegedly, the sun god Apollo. In order to confirm that he really was his father, Apollo (Geoff Elliott, disguised in golden armor) promises by the river Styx to grant Phaeton any wish. Phaeton asked to drive the sun god’s chariot. This tale from Ovid gets a modernist treatment as Phaeton is lounging on a pool float in the river, as his psychotherapist is taking notes on his neurosis related to his absent father. Phaeton goes to see his father and ask for some of his father’s power – namely, the key to his fiery chariot. Racked with guilt from neglect of his son, Apollo allows Phaeton to “drive” the sun across the sky as compensation for his years of absence. Phaeton, who constantly whines, drives the sun too close to the earth and scorches it. The Therapist closes the scene in a monologue about the difference between myth and dream.
Story Eight: Eros and Psyche: Aphrodite (Sydney A. Mason), the Goddess of love and beauty cares about her blind, wingéd son, Eros (Rafael Goldstein). She is jealous of the beauty of an earthly human named Psyche (Erika Soto). So, she sends her son Eros to kill Psyche. However, Eros falls in love with Psyche against the wishes of Aphrodite, who forbids Psyche from seeing him. She is kept blindfolded and she worries that she might have married a monster. Two women by the pool tell the audience that Eros and Psyche might wander in the darkness of loneliness until they blind themselves to personal romantic desires and give in to a deeper love. Psyche becomes a goddess and lives with Eros forever.
Story Nine: Baucis and Philemon: Zeus (Geoff Elliott), King of the Gods, disguises himself as a beggar to test the kindness of humans. He is accompanied by Hermes (De Juan Christopher), Zeus’ song and messenger to the gods. They visit the houses of many humans only to be repulsed as beggars. Finally, they arrive at a small hovel where Baucis (Cassandra Maria Murphy) lives with her husband Philemon (Rafael Goldstein). Baucis welcomes the disguised Zeus and Hermes into her humble home. Philemon makes sure that Zeus and Hermes are comfortable and well fed in their home. Eventually Zeus and Hermes reveal that they are not beggars but gods and reward the couple with a magnanimous gift – After the feast, the gods reveal themselves and grant the two a wish. Baucis and Philemon ask to die at the same time to save each other the grief of death. The gods transform their house into a grand palace and the couple into a pair of trees with branches intertwined. At the end of the scene, Midas returns to the stage, finds the pool, washes, and is restored. His daughter enters, restored from being fixed as a gold piece, and the play ends with a redeemed Midas embracing his daughter.
At A Noise Within, a cast of nine resident artists takes on over 85 roles in nine myths: DeJuan Christopher (Seven Guitars); Geoff Elliott (ANW producing artistic director); Rafael Goldstein (All’s Well That Ends Well, A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, more); Nicole Javier (All’s Well That Ends Well); Kasey Mahaffy (All’s Well That Ends Well, A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, more); Sydney A. Mason (A Christmas Carol, Seven Guitars); Trisha Miller (All’s Well That Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale, Argonautika, more); Cassandra Marie Murphy (Argonautika, Henry V, Man of La Mancha); and Erika Soto (All’s Well That Ends Well, Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein).