Monday, October 1, 2012

REVIEW: TWO MILLENNIA OF TEARS - 'Metamorphoses' at Lookingglass Theatre

Photo: Liz Lauren

Setting a full-length play in a pool of water is risky business. Many will cry out "Gimmick!" disturbed by the uncomfortable lack of a living room couch, kitchen table or, in the case of this particular play, an overabundance of white stone columns. And others will never quite get past the pool's novelty as they cling to their digital cameras, eyes nervously darting to nearby ushers before they snap a blury memento. But one person’s extreme risk is a visionary director’s irrefutable logic.

Never having seen Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses," a play that, in a differently-named incarnation, premiered at Northwestern University in 1996, re-premiered at the old Lookingglass in 1998, played Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre in 2001, rocked Broadway’s Circle In The Square Theatre in 2002, and is a popular staple among high schools and universities, I was, for years, among the doubting. In my mind, the play’s enormously broad appeal stemmed from familiar material being obscured by an infrastructural twist. "Cinderella On Ice!" or "Orpheus In Pool!" Not so, my friends.

In this highly anticipated remount, which opened at Lookingglass Theatre on Saturday night, the director-adaptor has solidly defeated my preconceptions and biases by harnessing an ellusive theatrical rarity – balance. “Metamorphoses” is not solely about its black lagoon of a pool, nor is it necessarily about the Greek myths it so richly and satisfyingly retells. All of the elements – the story, the watery medium, the gifted actors – exist as one fluid being. And, that intangible union, an important facet of any play, is especially paramount here.

After all, at Greece’s most powerful, it was a seafaring contradiction. Grecian city states had the strongest mobilized navies of the ancient world, and their history would become defined by glorious, poetic depictions of famous wars like the Trojan and Pelopenesian. Images of wide blades barreling through hundreds of bodies contrasted with unknowing widows staring wantonly out to the Aegean Sea. But, concurrent with its violent outbursts, Ancient Greece was also the pinnacle of western art, science, and politics.

Euripedes, Sophocles, Hippocrates, Aeschylus, Aristotle – the formidable list of players goes on and on. Even as the Roman Empire, Ovid’s turf, became the usurping world power player, theatrical adaptations of the great Greek tragedies were the norm for most of Rome’s existence. And guess what. They still are. Especially in this metropolis along Lake Michigan  our own little pool.

"Metamorphoses"'s sizable pool  its tsunami of stormy splashes, its elegant, pale wooden frame – encapsulates Greece’s fortitude, while its experienced ensemble – some who have lived with this play since its premiere production  – see the enormity of the Trojan War in the hundreds of gallons of water, and baptismally transform the spectacle into nuanced artistry. It is a true staging marvel that the imposing nature of the water can dissipate in an instant to cradle profound moments of intimacy – the most devastating hug you will ever see a daughter give a father, a lover’s last glance, a candlelit feast.  Often tragic but occasionally comic, all of these characters' metamorphoses are united in unbelievable optimism. They are cautionary tales, but they don’t say “Look, you must...” They scream “Yes, you can.”

Not literally, of course. "Metamorphoses" is not a cleverly masked Obama campaign spot. On the contrary, I don't really believe the play aims to be timely, at all. I think it endeavors to be warmly personal and to find parallels between epic world conflicts and our own private tortures. Zimmerman's reconstruction of Roman poet, Ovid's fifteen episode "Metamorphoses," with the addition of "Letters To A Young Poet"-scribe, Rainer Maria Rilke's "Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes," includes the myths of spouses Ceyx and Alycone, flirty friends Vertumnus and Pomona, lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, among several others. But it's notably framed by two stories of wealth.  

Wealth is certainly on many peoples' minds this month   the division and redistribution of it being a hugely divisive political issue. But money has been a hot topic of literature as far back as Chekhov, Dickens, and The Bible. Mr. Midas' (Raymond Fox, wisely looking older than his compatriots) infamous greed, as dramatized by Zimmerman, is a stark reminder that charity, or lack thereof, is not a question of political group affiliation, but a personal value expressed in unremarkable daily interactions. Zimmerman has brought forth a play that expresses how simple acts can metamorphose the unremarkable into the grotesque or the phosphorescent – that the capacity for personal change is ever-present and open to us.

The cast has certainly changed a lot. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was a quiet six year old when Marilyn Dodds Frank, Raymond Fox, Doug Hara, Anne Forgarty, and Louise Lamson first went swimming. And though I did not have the pleasure of experiencing their original performances, an awareness of their history with the work enhanced my appreciation of this staging. This current production is not so much a remount as it is a family reunion, and that developed camaraderie is wondrously palpable.

And the director and her cast are supported generously by intelligent, well-married design elements. Dan Ostling's set is little more than a rectangular pool and a heavy Victorian door, but his small touches  the hidden caves formed by the 'pool deck' which amplify the waves – allow the water's quality to rapidly shift from uninhabitable to pleasantly serene. Maria DeFabo's properties design is unusually vibrant with the red-colored roses and bouncing ball starkly sticking out against the blandly-colored  set. And though all of Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are functionally picturesque, a young girl's Christmas light skirt is absolutely angelic. 

Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" has impeccable staying power, and I don't mean in terms of continued productions, but of deeply personal resonance. Leaving the theatre, I was undoubtedly moved and impressed with what I'd seen, but in a subdued manner I assumed ephemeral. But not until I sat down to write did I become quite unexpectedly teary-eyed as I thought about the repeated moment of Orpheus' final, stubborn glance at his lost Eurydice. And then, gaining awareness of my tears, the emotional roller coaster was further exacerbated by a sudden image of that great pool as a gathering well of all of humanity's tears, accumulating through the centuries. Collective tears, the greatest force in our own personal and cultural metamorphoses. -Johnny Oleksinski

'Metamorphoses' runs at Lookingglass Theatre through November 18. 90 Minutes. Visit for more information.