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REVIEW: Riveting Metamorphoses Ripples (Guthrie Theater)

Orpheus (Alex Moggridge, left) tries to wrest his love from the ravages of death in the Guthrie Theater/Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production of Mary Zimmerman’s play Metamorphoses. The forces of Hades (Steven Epp, Louise Lamson, and Rodney Gardiner) look on with bemusement. Photo by Dan Norman.

It is seldom to see a set piece with so much character as the pool in Metamorphoses. From the moment you enter the performing space at the Guthrie Theater, it looks beautiful. Your mind immediately starts to wonder how the pool and its 1,500 gallons of water will be used. By the evening’s end, the production – indeed, every scene – seems impossible to imagine without it. This water tank is simply integral to the gripping, tactile storytelling of this engrossing play.

The Metamorphoses is the name of a mammoth compilation of myths and other stories from antiquity, set in almost 12,000 lines of poetry by Ovid. This Roman writer, born of the generation just after Julius Caesar, is considered to be one of the greatest Latin poets to ever have lived. The Metamorphoses was his magnum opus, fusing over 250 myths into a unified and artful piece of extended storytelling.

Midas (Raymond Fox) makes an ill-fated wish as the gods and godly (Benjamin T. Ismail and Rodney Gardiner) look on. Photo by Dan Norman.

Fast-forward two thousand years to last night’s opening of Mary Zimmerman’s play Metamorphoses at the Guthrie. Zimmerman, who also directs this production, set several stories from Ovid’s work and some related mythos into an intricate, immersive evening that runs 90 minutes with no intermission. When the lights finally dim to black, it’s almost a surprise that so much time has elapsed – so absorbing is this storytelling.

The 10-person ensemble cast rotate smoothly through so many characters in both dramatic and comedic guises that any sort of summary seems almost redundant. Still, a few beautiful and visceral moments stand out – like the pools of golden light as Midas (Raymond Fox) walks along the pool’s edge, his touch turning the ground to gold, and the sheer terror – and the suddenly caught breaths of the audience – screaming from his body as his daughter runs towards him, unawares. The near-wordless agony of repeating memory as a ballet as Orpheus and Eurydice are separated in the underworld for the last time. The hilarity (and, often, tragedy) that ensues whenever any of the Greek gods visit upon mortals. Splashes of water as a medium for expressions of lust, hunger, grief, and madness.

The present production of Metamorphoses is co-produced by the Guthrie Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo by Dan Norman.

If you’re ever going to consider an argument that Greco-Roman mythology speaks to the universal inside us, Zimmerman’s script makes a profound and convincing argument. The selected stories cover a wide range of human foibles, desires, obsessions, sins, and others – all of which shimmer with an unmistakeable ring of truth that gives them power. “Are they cautionary tales or entertainment?” you might ask. “Both.” There is no prior knowledge of Greek mythology required, but you might find yourself wanting to buy a copy of Ovid after this show has whet your appetite.

The set of Metamorphoses is beautiful to behold, designed by Daniel Ostling and dominated by the aforementioned pool, assembled under the supervision of technical director Jim Gängl. It is lovingly lit by T. J. Gerckens, with many important light-sound combined effects created with Andre Pluess. Surprisingly, there is relatively little music for Orpheus in Willy Schwarz’s original score, but the show’s music is used effectively to accent scenes and illustrate the division between the human and the divine.

A divine messenger (Sango Tajima) on a mission. Photo by Dan Norman.

Metamorphoses runs through May 19 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine