Arden Theatre Company’s season debut METAMORPHOSES has been building quite a bit of hype: announce that you will build a pool on stage and the ears of audiences, critics, and artists alike will certainly perk up. The subject matter of Mary Zimmerman’s play, if I dare say so, may not have otherwise created such a stir in the Philly theater community—after all, why should 21st century audiences care to see yet another dramatization of Greek mythology, or find a text older than the New Testament fresh and thrilling? The answer, Zimmerman tells us, is really very simple: “Myths are the earliest forms of science.” This visceral production, directed by Doug Hara, explains why us humans act the way that we do, and reveres love as the most sacred of universal human experiences.
Like Ovid’s masterpiece on which Zimmerman has based her play, METAMORPHOSES lacks a linear sustaining narrative. Ovid’s Metamorphoses avoids a singular protagonist, and instead compiles 250 myths into one epic poem. His mythic retellings criticize those wrathful, wanton Greek gods while elevating and praising the virtues of mortals. While literary critics debate over the overall effect Ovid’s text intends to make, Zimmerman’s are much more clear and Aristotelian: delight, entertain, and deliver catharsis.
Scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s 18-by-24-foot pool creates a fascinating aesthetic. The black lining on the pool’s floor allows actors to disappear in the “deep end,” and the water’s mirror effect completes the efficacy of Thom Weaver’s mellow yet vibrant lighting design. The pool not only serves as a daring and visually captivating scenic element, but it also adeptly symbolizes the strongest motifs in METAMORPHOSES’ array of myths: death, grief, danger, happiness, peace, and rebirth. The set, expanding beyond the pool, feels like the grotto of some timeless mansion, a space for mythology and modernity to cohabit. Olivera Gajic’s costumes complement this anachronism, her garments ranging from sheer toga-like gowns and headpieces made of brush and twigs to Billabong swim trunks and tuxedos.
The myth of Orpheus shines as one of METAMORPHOSES’ most memorable vignettes, with Christopher Colucci’s spellbinding sound design enveloping the theater in dread as the hero descends into the underworld. It is in this passage of the play in which Zimmerman stands even further back as a literary critic, and is the only instance in which she blatantly states a detached, academic interpretation of a story. Her analytical voice only cuts through in this one specific moment, as if to make it painfully obvious why we still study myths.
Its ensemble cast of Arden veterans assume the roles of humans, vengeful gods and more virtuous, and therefore lesser, deities in the Greek pantheon. Leigha Kato and Lindsay Smiling’s incestuous dance as Myrrah and Cinyras left audience members open-mouthed, spellbound; and one can’t easily forget Alex Keiper’s grief-ridden Alcyone. Other Philadelphia favorites—Steve Pacek and Krista Apple-Hodge, to name but two—decorate the ensemble cast with talent and versatility.
Despite its adventurous production elements, METAMORPHOSES takes little risk in thematic material. From a purely dramatic perspective, however, it accomplishes what theater has always been meant to do:to cleanse and transform an audience within a couple of hours’ entertainment. [Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street] October 1–November 1, 2015; ardentheatre.org.