Putting the Metamorphoses onstage might sound like trying to mount the Divine Comedy or the Iliad: Fifteen chapters of ancient verse just weren't meant to be a play. Strangely enough, though, Mary Zimmerman has converted a handful of scenes from the poem into a stylized, funny, 100-minute stage version that makes, for the most part, a colorful and involving show. Zimmerman is a writer and director who developed the play in Chicago, at the Lookingglass Theater. Her scenes range from pretentious to funny to brilliant; but most important, the whole thing works — it holds together. I honestly didn't expect a stage adaptation of Ovid to be coherent.
The old epic recasts Greek myths about the prehistorical world, and brings the reader up to date on what for Ovid was recent Roman history. It's organized around the theme of change — hence the title. Most of the myths deal with fairy- tale transformations from sailor to seabird, or girl to golden statue, but the changes themselves also imply an unchanging, universal soul that under-lies all appearances. The chasm in time between the birth of the world and the more contemporary adventures of Julius Caesar turns out, for Ovid, to be manageable.
Zimmerman's play is organized around a body of water. The dark, vividly surreal set (by Daniel Ostling) consists of a chandelier, a dingy wooden doorway, a rectangle of painted sky, and a deck-surrounded pool. The pool takes up most of the stage and the actors splash around in it. Slaves row, women wash clothes, a drunken minion of Bacchus' almost drowns, a sailor wrestles with a storm (in human shape) — so violently that the audience gets wet — and Myrrha, a girl with unnatural lusts, sloshes erotically around with her blindfolded dad.
Sometimes the water is inherent to the myth, sometimes Zimmerman works it in. The funniest working-in of the water comes in the segment with Phaeton, Phoebus Apollo's son, who steps up in a pair of swim trunks and sunglasses, flips an inflatable raft into the pool, and sprawls on it like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. His dad is the grand and noble charioteer of the sun, and Phaeton has Oedipal issues, which he unravels to his therapist (Lisa Tejero). Phaeton needs to grow up; he wants his dad's power and responsibility. “There's only one thing I want. It's obvious, right? I say to him, 'Gimme the keys to your car!'” Meaning the solar chariot.
Doug Hara does an excellent job of making Phaeton sound like a spoiled American college kid, and Erik Lochtefeld makes a funny contrast, in the background, as the lofty Phoebus Apollo, in a golden crown and bright yellow robe, singing in a quiet falsetto the same lines his son ascribes to him in the therapy session. Phaeton, of course, has crashed his father's chariot and scorched the Earth — that's why he's in therapy. His analyst both enhances and ruins the segment by making Freudian asides about her subject's psychological struggle, but the modern twist makes the pool central to the tale, though Ovid didn't mention water in his version of the myth.
One of the best segments is the story of Vertumnus and Pomona, which contains the story of Myrrha and her father. Anjali Bhimani does delicate work as the shy-yet-passionate Myrrha, who sneaks into her father's bed three times. The dancelike movement choreographed for the love scenes, in a silent theater, with dripping water, is hypnotic; but by the third tryst it starts to feel like soft porn, and you realize that there's probably no mention of water by Ovid in this myth, either. Yes, the pool works as a register of mood, silent in the tender moments and thrashingly violent afterward; but the show indulges in it as an erotic effect. It's dramatically necessary only at the very end, when Myrrha “dissolves into tears,” and Bhimani folds herself gracefully into the shallow water and disappears.
Zimmerman, as a director, can make her stage images strong and clear. Orpheus and Eurydice have a picturesque wedding, with three attendants holding candles, who become mourners after Eurydice steps on a snake. Then Orpheus descends into a lurid, red-lit Hades populated by Sisyphus and a pair of devil-horned lovers. On his way out, when Orpheus turns around in a panic and loses Eurydice, she's pulled away by Hermes in a balletic gesture. With a narrator's help, the actors repeat the ending four times, to give three interpretations of Ovid's ending and then a fresh ending from Rilke, and in terms of style and form this is the most interesting piece in the play.
But too much attention to style and form — along with too much narrator-interpretation — is also where the play falls flat. Louise Lamson and other actors regularly cross the thin line between “stylized” and “stilted” by acting overreverent, or intoning lines like an oracle, which in dealing with ancient material is as fatal a trap as affecting a silly British accent in Shakespeare. And the Eros and Psyche segment would be perfect with about half of the narrator commentary. Doug Hara plays Eros as a naked, blindfolded, angel-winged god, asleep on a floating bed, and Hallie Beaune Jacobson does a nicely tentative, overcurious Psyche, dripping wax on Eros' rump with a candle. The story does need some kind of narrator, because the subject of the narration is too long to be played in full, yet too important to leave out, but the question-and-answer form of summary (“What does the name 'Psyche' mean?” A: “It means soul.”) grows tedious.
Still, without using narrators, Zimmerman could never have unified her play. She's clearly aware of the trouble but errs on the side of overexplaining, trying to interpret when she should simply suggest. In one of the endings attached to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a narrator asks if Orpheus' fateful turning-around isn't maybe a parable for a self-checking, self-conscious artist. Well, artistic self-consciousness is exactly the flaw in what's otherwise a vivid and trenchant show.