Love, Loss and Mythic Transformations in “Metamorphoses”— PST Opens Season with Mary Zimmerman’s Tribute to Ovid
Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s 1998 theatrical updating of Ovid’s 8 AD fifteen-volume poetic masterpiece based on Greek myths, is, as the title indicates, all about changes. The ten tales featured in Ms. Zimmerman’s 75-minute narrative drama, opening the Princeton Summer Theater season at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, range widely from the most familiar (King Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice) to the most obscure (Erysichthon, Myrrha) and from comical to deeply somber. Often it is death that brings about the transformations here.
The transformations are sometimes literal, as characters turn into gold, into birds, into flowers and trees or literally dissolve into tears, but also psychological, as characters learn how to love, how to forgive, how to live through the pain and suffering to experience a catharsis, a purging of emotions. The play is also about the transforming power of story-telling and theater, as characters and audience find meaning, understanding and redemption in the telling and performing, the hearing and seeing of these stories.
The staging, as Ms. Zimmerman points out in her notes to the script, should “provide images that amplify the text, lend it poetic resonance, or, even, sometimes contradict it.” The myths from Ancient Greece are rich in the textures of life and psychology, timeless in the human passions, joys and sorrows that they evoke. The challenge here is to communicate this richness to contemporary theater audiences.
This Princeton Summer Theater ensemble, under the direction of Maeli Goren, is abundantly creative, imaginative and talented, and they do succeed—albeit unevenly—in finding visual metaphors for the ideas and emotions embedded in these powerful stories and bringing this text to life. Made up this year mostly of recent Princeton University graduates, the PST Company of three men and three women, shows extraordinary energy and flexibility in taking on numerous different roles, shifting rapidly from scene to scene, and collaborating seamlessly as a unit.
Each actor assists in telling the stories and must also convincingly embody many different characters. The evening is replete with humor and emotion. Memorable characters come to life, and unforgettably moving moments—King Midas with his daughter who has turned to gold, the beautiful reunion and transformation of Alcyone and Ceyx into seabirds, the moment of Eurydice’s final farewell and return to the Underworld, the shocking realization and confrontation between incestuous father Cinyras and daughter Myrrha, a cocky, brash, contemporary Phaeton out of control behind the wheel of his father Apollo’s sun chariot, and the eternally loving (“Let me die the moment my love dies”) Baucis and Philemon transforming into trees with branches intertwined—leave no doubt about why these myths have survived, stirring human hearts and souls for thousands of years. Some of the staging here, however, (Narcissus, Pomona and Vertumnus, Eros and Psyche) is less clear and effective.
Beginning with her colorful retelling of The Odyssey in 2000, Mary Zimmerman has brought several plays to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, including also The Secret in the Wings, Argonautika and The White Snake, all featuring captivating storytelling and dynamically visual, inventive staging, Winner of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, aptly called “the genius grant,” Ms. Zimmerman is as renowned for her directing as for her playwriting. Her magic touch would be helpful here.
All these plays rely heavily on the versatility and imagination of actors, director and designers, with minimal set, props and costuming, but this PST production is at times too minimalistic to deliver these stories in their full power and clarity. Audiences, even those well versed in Greek mythology, will have some difficulty following two or three of these tales. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set and props include ingenious use of several bedsheets hoisted and lowered, six colorful chairs employed for numerous purposes, seven multi-purpose hula hoops, a collection of buckets with an ocean-blue floor and sky-blue backdrop, admirably complemented by Alex Mannix’s dramatic and nuanced lighting design, Steven Tran’s indispensable musical composition and piano playing, and Keating Helfrich’s all-white costume design.
But a bit more color and a few more props and costume pieces would help greatly in activating the audience’s imagination and clarifying, enlivening these characters, situations and stories. How about an actual plant to help illustrate Narcissus’ transformation from self-absorbed young man to flower? And for Vertumnus, whose courting of Pomona is all about disguises, how about a couple of costume pieces, maybe a wig and hat, to help the actor to embody this contrast between his disguised and real selves?
In her director’s notes in the program, Ms. Goren describes how in staging the action of the play her collaborative company has departed from the traditional large pond on stage and “decided to ditch the pool in favor of a grown-up surrealist playground that shifts and changes along with the stories we present.” This is a smart, creative director with a highly talented ensemble of actors and a first-rate professional crew, all making the most of the Hamilton Murray performance space. But we do miss the pond, which brilliantly would highlight so many details and themes of these stories, and was such a strikingly memorable feature of the original production at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre in 1998, then in New York, eventually, where I first saw it in 2002, at Circle in the Square on Broadway.
The six actors provide a model of collaborative, ensemble performance, making it impossible to single out individual stars here. Ross Baron is a tall, strong, manly husband and sea captain as Ceyx, and certainly impressive in a range of roles from Myrrha’s father to the immature teenage dude Phaeton. Evan Thompson creates an affecting King Midas, who learns his lesson; a sympathetic Orpheus, with some fine fiddle playing; and an array of humorous supporting characters. Brad Wilson, from Bacchus to Hermes to Eros and Vertumnus, proves highly resourceful, adaptable and consistently engaging.
Maeve Brady, as Midas’s daughter, Eurydice, Psyche, and other narrative and character roles, is convincing, focused and appealing. Caroline Hertz is powerfully affecting as Alcyone, Myrrha and others. And Bits Sola bravely overcomes crutches and bandaged foot to skillfully portray Pomona, Baucis, Phaeton’s therapist and numerous different narrators.
In her final commentary on the fatal Phaeton episode, the therapist reflects on the meaning of it all: “It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions.”
Dreams public and private come dramatically to life here in this Princeton Summer Theater opening production. It’s important to consider the enigmatic, irrational and ambiguous in life as well as the rational and easily understood. And remember, “love conquers all, so don’t scorn Aphrodite.”
Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (1998) will run at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for just one more weekend, Thursday through Sunday, June 25-28, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Call (732) 997-0205 or visit princetonsummertheater.org for tickets and further information.