To describe Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses as a splashy production is almost irresistible—it’s hard to think of a show in history that’s doused its audience so enthusiastically—but the pun does a disservice to a profoundly moving, nuanced piece of theater. From the way lighting designer T.J. Gerckens creates the illusion of King Midas’s feet turning the stage beneath him to gold to the smell of incense that wafts across the theater in a later scene, Zimmerman has created a theatrical experience that’s both sensory and visceral, combining humor, pathos, and the inevitability of the unknown in one enormously powerful work.
Devised more than a decade ago with Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company (where Zimmerman is an ensemble member), Metamorphoses’s storied history as a show includes a 2002 Tony Award for best direction. Arena’s incarnation, which follows a Lookingglass revival, keeps its most famous element—a giant pool of water, within which most of the action takes place—but presents it in the round in the Fichandler Theatre, meaning audiences get drenched from all sides, literally and metaphorically. The four sides of the pool are surrounded with decking, and at times the light beaming down from above seems so authentically like sunshine that you can almost feel the water evaporating off the wood. If Zeus ever had a backyard, chances are it might look a little like this.
Zimmerman’s adaptation of five of Ovid’s myths (and one from Apuleius) combines classical acting with a sort of tongue-in-cheek awareness of modernity—her staging of the story of King Ceyx (Geoff Packard) and his wife, Alcyon (Louise Lamson), is as faithful Greek drama as you’ll ever see portrayed with a toy boat and sailors in Marcel Marceau stripes, while Phaeton (Doug Hara), son of the sun god, Helios, floats on a giant lounger while discussing his neuroses with his shrink (Lisa Tejero). In the hands of a less gifted director, the approach might seem glib, but Zimmerman manages to make mythology funny while impressing upon the audience how painfully relevant it remains. Erysichthon (Chris Kipiniak), plagued by hunger (portrayed terrifyingly by the tiny Ashleigh Lathrop, her face covered with a stocking), seems as manic and irrational as any 21st-century addict, while King Midas (Raymond Fox) is akin to a hedge funder with his long hours in the office and maniacal pursuit of cash.
This is a true ensemble piece, with the water performing perhaps the most intriguing role. It’s hard not to share the zeal the actors seem to feel when they jump in and out of the pool, showering the audience with water (the first two rows on each side are equipped with blankets, but the audience members still seemed surprised at the volume of spray that comes their way), but the most powerful moment is the first time a performer steps into the pool, drenching his trouser legs. Within the unusual confines of a theater the simple action feels almost scandalous, challenging everything we think we know about what’s about to happen. The performers run offstage in soaking wet clothes and appear minutes later in identical dry ones, subverting time, matter, and the laws of nature in a truly compelling way.
Daniel Ostling’s set is deceptively simple, but from the way cast members appear and disappear and pull props from thin air there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes incorporate the zany timelessness of the rest of the show, so Hermes sports a leather jacket and Eurydice’s wedding dress is David’s Bridal-esque (extra kudos to sound designer Andre Pluess for hinting at prog-rock group King Crimson when Orpheus descends into the underworld). Each element fuses effortlessly into the production as a whole without distracting from the power of the performances. There’s a mournful gasp from the audience when Midas finds his daughter’s jump rope, now gilded and stiff, and a collective sigh when Baucis and Philemon transform towards the end of the play. Arena’s in-the-round setting makes the edge of the pool feel like a never-ending path around which the stories appear and transmute. Judging by this production, they’ll fascinate us for as long as they continue to do so.
Metamorphoses is at Arena Stage through March 17. The production runs about 90 minutes, with no intermission, and contains brief nudity. Tickets ($50 and up) are available via Arena’s website.