The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Immortal
June 24, 2002

Last week we witnessed what was one of the greatest theater experience of our lives - Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphosis. This is a play in which writer/director Zimmerman tells the stories from Ovid’s epic poem. It’s all about the Roman gods; Midas and his golden touch, Cupid and Psyche, Pandora’s box … all the good ones.

What makes this production unique is that the entire stage is a pool of water surrounded by a narrow wooden walkway. The actors wade in, splash around, are submerged and emerge changed. It’s the perfect element for conveying the endless changes that this play is about. Metamorphosis is a series of stories that flow one into the other, circle around like eddies, disappear beneath the surface, and re-emerge later from the depths. Ultimately the stories weave themselves into a tapestry that is as elusive and beautiful as writing on the surface of a lake.

The water that is the stage has only the black walls of the theater to reflect, giving the impression that the gods and humans are entering ink. The colors throughout the production are black and gold. There’s one door at the back of the stage, and on the right a rectangular piece of sky that changes colors wonderfully. A simple golden chandelier hangs overhead. That’s it. It’s sparse. It’s dramatic. We were left speechless by this show.

Gods and humans enter and tell their tales of love and tragedy, mistrust and jealousy. Lives are changed, gods interfere. Early on a man sets out on a sea voyage leaving his wife behind. A storm brews up and his poor ship is tossed this way and that. A tiny model boat was thrown into the pool while two Poseidon-like gods with seaweed on their arms pour buckets of water over it. The man is dragged into the depths by these gods, coughing and splashing violently. His wife is left on the shore only to imagine what has become of her beloved. When the gods finally show her the ghost of her dead husband, her grief is so great that they are both transformed into birds and sail away.

One story ends, and another begins.

Midas is a suit-wearing Wall Street exec. completely in love with his money. When one of Baccus’ minions wanders into the pool and nearly drowns, Midas saves him. For this he is rewarded with whatever he wishes. Midas of course opts for the golden touch. The gods response is, "That’s a really bad idea." But Midas insists, and with golden light, and the ting of a bell at every step he takes the illusion is complete. It’s the magic of the theater. Everything he touches really does turn to gold. It’s a wonderful moment shattered when his daughter jumps into his arms and is frozen into a golden statue.

One story ends and another begins. The audience is treated to tale after tale of these magic moments of love, death, and rebirth. Some are told classically, others as modern updates. Phaeton is a spoiled Hollywood brat floating in the pool while his shrink takes down notes explaining that he’s upset because he’s never received the love of his distant father. All the kids at school teased him because his father is the Sun. He goes to visit the sun and demands the one thing all teenagers would ask for, the keys to his car. It’s the classic story of the chariot of the sun. Of course it gets too bright, the kid can’t see. He crashes the chariot that carries the sun across the sky and scorches the Earth.

The golden light of the sun is replaced by the cool darkness once again. An ending and a beginning. The play closes with all the characters in the pool together lit only by candles floating in the water. One by one they’re blown out leaving us in complete darkness. It brings you to tears, and then to your feet. It’s pure magic. Entirely cinematic and more performance art than traditional theater. These images will remain with us for ages to come.

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