Wrote Roman poet Ovid in his Amores, "May my death find me in love's ferment, and in mid-act may I expire in bed." A lot of people expire in mid-act, in more ways than one, in Mary Zimmerman's theatrical adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, now on stage via the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre. These characters drawn from Greek and Roman myth tend to die for love, but their demise is just part of a metamorphosis into another state. They become birds or trees or golden statues, sometimes happily and sometimes tragically, but always marked forever by the funny and frightening transformative power of love.
Zimmerman's play opened in New York City two years ago, right after Sept. 11, and audience members who had just experienced loss on an unimaginable scale found Metamorphoses almost unbearably moving. Here and now, at our distance, the play may be less cathartic, but it is at the very least an inventive entertainment, and often extremely touching.
At the UA, as in New York, most of the action takes place in and around a pool of water, with the gods strutting along a catwalk high overhead. Sally Day's set is visually simple, but psychologically rich (see "Pool Party," Oct. 16); water is the medium in which many of the characters effectively dissolve and reconstitute themselves.
Zimmerman has modernized many elements of Ovid's stories without going so far as to reset the myths in contemporary America; these are timeless tales, imply Zimmerman and director Harold Dixon, that can comfortably take on the accoutrements of any era in which they're retold.
The story of Phaeton, most amusingly, finds the title character (Noah Todd) floating in a swimming pool, complaining to his poolside therapist (Marisa Kennedy) about the issues he has with his absent father, the sun god Phoebus Apollo (Matt Bailey). The god saunters across the catwalk dressed like a refugee from a heavy metal band, yet he sings hymns to himself in an angelic tenor, Gregorian chant-style. Down below, Phaeton tells how once he finally went to visit his rich and powerful celebrity father, what he demanded as proof of affection were the keys to dad's car. The therapist interrupts the narrative with psychobabble asides; you just want to go down to the pool and dunk her, because the modern myth of psychoanalysis drives us away from emotional truths, while the old Greek and Roman stories bring those truths closer.
You sit through this well-written, well-played scene thinking, "Ha-ha, how clever," but the moments in this production of Metamorphoses that strike closer to our hearts than our heads are silent, or nearly so. There's the speechless horror of Midas (Nat Cassidy), the cigar-chomping, platitude-spouting mogul with the golden touch, who has inadvertently turned his precious daughter into precious metal; the graceful way Alcyone (Molly Jasper), running in slow motion to her drowned husband, arcs one arm and then the other behind her, drawing her wrists to the small of her back to signify the wings of the seabird she has become; Cinyras (Bailey) furiously attempting to drown his daughter, Myrrha (Lisa Sproul), upon learning that she is the woman who has blindfolded and seduced him; and the devastating image, repeated again and again, of Orpheus (Cassidy) turning to look at his beloved Eurydice (Lezlee Benninger), and the god Hermes (Todd) regretfully pulling her back to Hades as the lovers reach out to each other.
The many fine aspects of this script and its production outweigh the elements that don't quite mesh. Among the latter, Mike Pauley's Ceyx, for example, seems stiff next to Jasper's emotive Alcyone, and there are a very few moments when the splashing in the pool comes off as little more than a gimmicky distraction. (Tip: If you sit in the first row, wear something waterproof.)
These are minor problems, washed away by the quiet, affecting final scene, which first provides a rewarding metamorphosis for the elderly couple Baucis and Philemon, and then offers closure for the Midas story. Here the carnality of Ovid's plea to die in bed, found in his Amores, is replaced by a more spiritual little prayer that addresses a deep fear most of us share: "Let me not outlive my capacity for love."