“Metamorphoses” made a literal splash on Broadway back in the 2002-2003 season, winning creator and director Mary Zimmerman a Tony Award for her ingenious staging of this dramatic anthology of Roman myths.
The show, which originated in Chicago in 1998 and has been produced many times since, features a pool of water as its central playing space. But it’s fair to say that it has rarely, if ever, achieved the kind of gravitas and evocative beauty that is on display at the Guthrie Theater, where the 90-minute one-act opened over the weekend.
Some of the credit for that achievement goes to scenic designer Daniel Ostling, who also did the set for the New York production and whose work is complemented by that of lighting designer T.J. Gerckens and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld. Ostling uses the amplitude and height of the Guthrie space to make the scenic elements feel more august. On Broadway, the stage was in the round in a sunken playing space that suggested a Greek amphitheater. On the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage, Ostling’s set feels like a temple with an altar of water.
The stories that unfold there — of creatures blinded by greed and lust, or people simply yearning for change — are offerings.
In adapting Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” for the stage, Zimmerman was keen to find a theatrical vocabulary to match the lyricism of the language (she used David R. Slavitt’s translation). The poetry in her staging is not just linguistic, but in the economy of the images and iconography. There’s whimsy and folly and play as the actors move in what is essentially a liquid pageant.
The water is an element for reflection, for cleansing, for death and rebirth. One of the gifts of the show is to demonstrate that you often don’t need technological whiz-bangery to impress in the theater. The raw elements can be arresting enough.
In “Metamorphoses,” the cast plays multiple roles — with four actors from the original Broadway production. Former Twin Citian Felicity Jones Latta plays Aphrodite, Raymond Fox is King Midas, Lisa Tejero is a therapist and Louise Lamson is the distraught Alcyone. They all have really affecting or funny moments. When Lamson’s Alcyone is turned into a bird at the end of her story alongside her dead husband — these are Roman myths, after all, where the dead can fly away — the pair engage in some avian whimsy.
Jones Latta is majestic as love goddess Aphrodite while Fox’s King Midas finds heartbreak and regret.
But the newcomers to the show — which is coproduced with the Berkeley Rep, where it ran for two months ending in March — are just as engaging. Foremost among them is Steven Epp, who plays Erysichthon, the greedy king who chopped down a sacred grove. The former Theatre de la Jeune Lune member is a master of walking the tightrope between cruelty and wit. He imbues Erysichthon, who is ridden by hunger, with both heartlessness and charm.
The entire ensemble — Rodney Gardiner as Phaeton, Suzy Weller as Eurydice, Sango Tajima as Myrrha, Alex Moggridge as Ceyx and Benjamin T. Ismail as Hermes — is pretty flawless. They evoke a few spirits as they portray human characters, restless and unsatisfied, yearning for some sort of transcendence.