In the long history of great storytellers, before the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, before the 1,001 nights of Scheherazade, there was Ovid, the Roman poet who wrote the Metamorphoses, retelling ancient myths and legends. Mary Zimmerman has adapted these Roman poems for the stage, and Arden Theatre's spectacular production, under the imaginative direction of Doug Hara, dives - literally - into their new season with an onstage pool.
Some of the myths are familiar and some not, but most of them deal with passion and greed - for money, for food, for sex, for chastity - and how destructive that can be. The gods appear on a high platform, tormenting mortals, granting wishes, teaching lessons. The stories all turn on transformations - thus the title - and people turn into trees, into birds, into gold, just as we watch the actors transform themselves into character after character, each playing multiple roles.
The cast both enacts and narrates the stories, and they are, one and all, charming, graceful, and sensual, and often funny: Steve Pacek is especially amusing as Phaeton, son of the sun, played by Lindsay Smiling. Phaeton tells his psychiatrist, Sharina Martin, about his daddy issues. Krista Apple-Hodge plays Aphrodite to great effect; Sean Bradley gives us a lovely take on Orpheus, and Clare O'Malley is his beautiful Eurydice; Christopher Patrick Mullen is a great Midas, whose golden touch turns his daughter, the adorable Leigha Kato, into gold; and Brandon Pierce plays bashful Vertunmus wooing the love-resistant Pomona played by Alex Keiper, who wears my favorite of all the wondrous costumes, a delightful flower-covered dress (she is, after all, the goddess of gardens).
The geometric pool with its wooden border is the primary playing space, backed by a blue sky, raised platform, and a spiral staircase. Most of the time, the actors are wet - splashing, drowning, diving - and whatever magical fabric they're using, they then reappear dry. It is dazzling and fun and mystifying to see so much stagecraft in action. Bravo to Brian Sidney Bembridge, the scenic designer.
Also due kudos is Olivera Gajic, who designed the surprising costumes - wispy gowns, tuxedos, godlike headdresses. Thom Weaver's atmospheric lighting combined with Christopher Colucci's sound design contribute to the enchanting evening.
While the production is a knockout, the script itself is kind of annoying; the whole point of a myth is to render narratively some complex truths about life and love. But Zimmerman insists we understand each story her way, explaining it all in flat, simple language, leaving us no room to interpret. Where's the fun in that?