Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 8
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
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A CRAFTY SUITOR: Vertumnus (Ryan Serrano, right) approaches in one of his numerous disguises in an attempt to win the hand of Pomona (Elizabeth Swanson), but it is only when he gives up his foolish costumes that she finally falls in love with him in Theatre Intime’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through Saturday, February 28.

Mythic Images Abound — of Water and Sky, of Love and Loss — in “Metamorphoses,” Mary Zimmerman’s Updated Ovid at Intime

Donald Gilpin

“The myth is a public dream,” explains the earnest therapist to the audience and to a bewildered, whining Phaeton, who has just wrecked his father Apollo’s sun chariot. “Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days.”

The idea of myths as shared dreams permeates Theatre Intime’s current production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998) and is a driving inspiration behind the dazzlingly inventive theatrical creations that have won Ms Zimmerman a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and a Tony Award, among many other accolades over the past decade. Her myth-based Odyssey (1999) and Argonautika (2008) received much acclaim in recent McCarter Theatre productions, as did her Secret in the Wings (2005), which probed the psychological depths of fairy tales. Theatre Intime staged a successful production of Ms Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights (1992) last season.

Theatre Intime’s engaging, intelligent revival of Metamorphoses dramatically illustrates the enduring power of those archetypal myths from Ovid’s classic narrative poem (8 A.D.). In just over an hour, with no intermission, Metamorphoses, which ran at Circle in the Square on Broadway for more than 400 performances and was nominated for a Tony in 2002, presents ten different myths in the style of story theater, partly narrated, partly staged. The Intime production, directed by Princeton University sophomore Molly Silberberg, features eight energetic, versatile undergraduate actors, four men and four women, playing more than 40 different roles.

Ms. Silberberg emphasizes simplicity of staging, minimal set, costuming, and lighting effects. In this intriguing mix of modern and ancient, in language and action, the actors carry the narrative and shift skillfully from character to character with clarity, conviction, and brisk pacing.

Costumes, designed by Elyse Powell, are all a basic white or off-white color with occasional sashes, scarves, or other accoutrements making distinctions among the performers. Shawn Fennell’s unit set consists of a beautifully painted raised platform — primarily the domain of the gods and those who have departed earth to join them — dominating the upstage area and a four-foot wide trough from which fog and mist emerge across the entire front downstage area. This “water” realm represents the ocean, various different pools, the River Styx and even a bed of passion.

Jacob Denz, plucking and bowing the cello from high atop the platform at upstage left, lends an appropriately dramatic, evocative musical accompaniment to crucial moments in the drama and to transitions between scenes.

“Metamorphoses” will run from Thursday through Saturday, February 26-28, with performances each night at 8 p.m. in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets visit or call 609-258-1742. For further information visit

The myths range from the most familiar — King Midas and the golden touch, Orpheus and Eurydice, Narcissus, Phaeton and Apollo, Eros and Psyche, Baucis and Philemon — to less familiar, but no less resonant tales: of Alcyone, whose beloved husband Ceyx is lost at sea and can be reunited with her only when they are transformed into seabirds; of the sacrilegious Erysichthon, who is punished by Ceres by being relentlessly plagued by Hunger, in the form of a long-haired actress, who drives him to a distraction of insatiability; of the comical, variously-disguised Vertumnus’ courtship of the wood nymph Pomona; and of a far darker romance of Cinyras with his cursed daughter Myrrha, who is relieved of her tormenting illicit passion only when she turns into water and dissolves into the pool.

In keeping with Ovid and Ms. Zimmerman’s title, every episode reveals a change of some sort. Sometimes the changes are physical, as in the transformation of Midas’ daughter into gold, of Alcyone and Ceyx into birds, of Myrrha into water, of Baucis and Philemon into trees with their branches intertwined, and of several characters from life into death — and sometimes psychological or spiritual, as characters like Midas, Vertumnus, Cinyras, Eros, and Psyche learn something about themselves and the transformative powers of love and imagination.

Ms. Silberberg has rehearsed her ensemble effectively. The production strikes an appealing balance of comic and serious, of dark despair and heartwarming uplift. The roles — a fascinating array, mostly archetypes rather than in-depth characterizations — are evenly distributed, and the talented performers all contribute with focus, clarity, and commitment.

Ariel Sibert is perhaps the most memorable of the female performers, particularly in her inspired rendition of the devasting spirit of Hunger and as the tragically tormented incestuous daughter Myrrha. Caitlin Ludwigsen is luminously clear and engaging in several different roles: therapist, narrator, nursemaid and a variety of goddesses. Elizabeth Swanson plays moving, sympathetic spouses/love interests as Alcyone, Pomona, and Baucis. And Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay specializes in a kind of serious intensity, most effectively suited to her roles as Eurydice, Psyche, and Midas’ daughter.

Ben Knudson plays the framing role of Midas with fine sensitivity and an appropriately light touch, and also contributes effectively as Phaeton, Hades, and narrator. Ryan Serrano lends a youthful demeanor and a winning comic sensibility to his multiple roles. Jeff Kuperman is a convincing romantic lead in several of his many characterizations, and adds an impressive display of acrobatics to his depiction of Eros, god of love. Isaac Engels shifts back and forth expertly from god to mortal in a range of interesting roles as Bacchus, Poseidon, Orpheus, Philemon, narrator and others.

Theatre Intime’s Metamorphoses provides an entertaining, moving rendition of Ms. Zimmerman’s brilliant adaptation of Ovid’s timeless, endlessly fascinating stories. There are moments where musical/sound effects make dialogue on stage difficult to understand, and the choreography by Ms. Kissinger-Virizlay and Mr. Kuperman enhances the essential action occasionally, but more often encumbers. Also, despite the great virtues of simplicity here, this monochromatic production may be a letdown for audience members who saw Ms. Zimmerman’s original production in New York or elsewhere. For sheer ingenuity, exuberance, and imagery, her resourceful directing, colorful props, costuming, and lighting, not to mention the full-blown onstage pool, are difficult to match. But kudos to Intime, Ms. Silberberg, and company for undertaking this highly challenging work and delivering an enjoyable, thought-provoking evening of theater.

Mary Zimmerman, in describing her particular quest in adapting and staging classic works, once stated that “the task is to find the essence through compression.” Her Metamorphoses is ingeniously rich in its presentation of the essences of Ovid’s magnificent myths, which constitute no less than the essences of human nature and existence: loss and longing, transformation and redemption, through understanding and love. In its spare, intelligent production, Theatre Intime‘s capable ensemble delivers those essences with clarity and power.

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