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Metamorphoses: A Smart Modern Tale Built Upon Classic Myths

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The set up:

Who'd have thunk it? It's amusing to imagine this is what Ovid, the Roman poet best known for his mythological epic Metamorphoses, might say today if he learned that a play based on his work had become such a success. Okay, sure, Ovid's myths have themes that are fairly universal (wrath, insecurity, lust, despair) and feature such notable figures as Zeus, Aphrodite, Poseidon and Midas. But really, does rehashing old gods, kings and their human playthings still hold water for a modern audience? What if the water was in a giant pool in the middle of the stage for the actors to splash around in?

It's this text and this design that won writer/director Mary Zimmerman great praise for her reimaging of the Ovid myths in her production of Metamorphoses. First staged in 1996 at Northwestern University (where Zimmerman teaches), her production played two years later at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre, a stint off Broadway followed and then finally in 2002, the show opened on The Great White Way to critical acclaim. Metamorphoses garnered a boatload of prestigious nominations and awards, including the Tony nomination for Best Play and Tony Award for Best Director.

Since then, the show has become something of a regional theater darling, with many companies proving that splash zone enjoyment isn't simply the domain of Evil Dead The Musical.

The execution:

Unlike the blood-spatter frenzy of Evil Dead, Metamorphoses takes a much more genteel and metaphoric route to its splashiness. You can't talk about this production without talking about the giant pool of water that takes up about 90 percent of the stage. With a square-shaped interior deep-ish end (the water is about knee length) surrounded by an outer square of shallow wading depth, fronted on the audience side by a banquet table covered with various clear glass receptacles half filled with water, the pool/water serves the production in many forms.

Water is the symbol of transformation for all the characters as they wade and wash and are drowned or reborn in it throughout the play. It is the visual grounding of a set design that has little to no props. It provides the sometimes soothing, sometimes maudlin and often melancholy sound effects as the cast splashes about in the various scenes. It is at once beautiful and harrowing and nearly on the verge of stealing the spotlight.

I say nearly, because director and designer Colton Berry has such a firm grasp on the feel, look and meaning of this show that no matter how downright cool it is to see a humongous pool of water onstage, we're not simply wowed by unique design. Instead, Berry's superb finesse with the emotions in Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's work captures our rapt attention as we follow the eleven myths in this two hour production.

Alternating between comedy and tragedy, modern dialogue and something closer to the way Ovid himself would have spoken, the show is a series of short scenes narrated by a rotating cast of black-dressed washerwomen and performed in ensemble format with the ten cast members playing several roles. Each scene tells a myth in which one or all of the characters undergo some kind of water-enabled change, imparting eerily relevant takeaways for our own non-mythical lives.

There's King Midas, whose greed leads him to ask the gods for the power to turn all he touches to gold. King Ceyx, who sets sail to his ultimate death despite his beloved wife Alcyone's warnings and disapproval. Erysichthon, who is cursed with an insatiable appetite after inconsiderately chopping down one of the gods' favorite trees. Orpheus, who must relive the mistake he made when trying to free his newly dead bride from the underworld, losing her forever.

A woody nymph, Pomona, who only accepts the God of Spring's love when he stops trying to win her with silly disguises and finally reveals his true self. Myrrha, whose shunning of love angers Aphrodite so greatly she curses her to lust after her own father. Phaeton, who finally gets to meet his Sun God father, Apollo, who ruins Phaeton with his absent father guilt. Eros and Psyche, who ultimately get their acts together and form the basis of soulful true love. Finally there is Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple who unknowingly are kind to the gods and are rewarded one wish, the choice of which will melt anyone's heart.

The feel of these stories seesaws from modern Kim Kardashian/Valley girl-sounding narration to Freudian analysis to classically told tales. But the one thing the scenes have in common (besides a uniformly terrifically talented cast, each one a gem in this production) is a richness of experience. Berry gives us a visually stunning production using copious fog, moody lighting, simple design and the physicality of his cast to conjure everything from humans turning into birds and trees to the anthropomorphism of hunger, sleep and lust.

And this production sounds just as good at it looks. With an eclectic and judiciously incorporated sound design conjuring both water effects and instrumental arrangements that hit several emotional octaves, Metamorphoses is injected with a big helping of soul. Just when you think you can't be moved yet again, Berry and his cast dig into Zimmerman's clever, funny and heartbreaking script, ensuring we can't look away.

The verdict:

Here's the thing about a good myth about change: It doesn't matter if it's hundreds of years old or was written by some Roman dude who never had a Frappuccino. If the lesson is a good one, it stands the test of time. We can all still learn something from the excesses of greed, the beauty of true love, the need to let go when love is over, the importance of kindness and consideration and the pitfalls of not being ourselves.

The thing about a play about transformation myths? Well, if it embraces the old and makes it new by taking risks in the writing, thereby forcing a jaded audience to look at their own personal paths and decisions, then it too is good. Here Zimmerman has taken what could have been a snore-fest retelling of didactic and preachy material and transformed it into a thoroughly entertaining and wickedly smart modern tale that borrows heavily from its origin to sublime effect.

Finally, what about a production of a new play about change based on old myths? In this case, under the superlative design and direction of Colton Berry and his merry band of standout performers who take us on a journey as gorgeous as it is meaningful, we get a night in the theater that is nothing short of life-changing. Or at the very least, theater life-changing.

Metamorphoses continues through February 1 at The Kaleidoscope, 705 Main at Capitol, Suite B. Purchase tickets online at BayouCityTheatrics.com as well as at the door. $35 - $40.

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