Metamorphoses at The Public | Program Notes
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Monday, February 9, 2009

Metamorphoses at The Public

Posted By on Mon, Feb 9, 2009 at 5:43 PM

In bringing Iron Age myths to iPhone Age audiences, Pittsburgh Public Theater's production (which runs through Sun., Feb. 15) draws an interesting line. As conceived by playwright Mary Zimmerman, this adaptation of Ovid's great work speaks often in a modern, even contemporary idiom: Ovid's Orpheus and Eurydice is supplemented with Rilke's; business suits mix with togas; and the sleek, cunningly simple set, dominated by a sizable swimming pool, plays host to such signal modern interactions as a therapy session. But Metamorphoses is about as far from "realism" as it gets.

True, Zimmerman's comic rendering of the story of Phaeton and Apollo -- spoiled adult son of a famous, distant father -- as said poolside therapy is the evening's most crowd-pleasing set piece. But the play has a lot less contemporizing than you might guess. What's more interesting is how the production insists on its theatricality.

Many of the stories, for instance, are narrated by an actor standing onstage, even as other actors act them out; some of the narrators, in fact, actually stand knee-deep in the pool, behind a small music stand holding a script. Some of the costuming is outrageous, especially wild headdresses for Ceres and Aphrodite. Apollo spends most of his stage time singing, opera-style. Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes circle the pool a half-dozen times, re-enacting their fraught procession endlessly. And those titular metamorphoses -- into animals, trees, golden statuary -- are achieved with no more special effects than lighting and actorly gesture.

Zimmerman jokes about this theatricality, I thought, in the scene when Morpheus is ordered to pose as a dead sea captain's ghost for the benefit of the man's distraught wife, who doesn't know he's dead. The same actor, of course, plays both the "transformed" Morpheus and the captain. First he's complimented on his accurate transformation, and then he visits the widow and lies: "I am not some bearer of tales, but the man himself, to whom [the tragedy] happened."

As peformed by a fine cast of 10 directed by Ted Pappas, it's all "stagy," of course. But whether that's an insult depends on whether we're truly spoiled for theater's imaginary worlds by the equally illusory "realism" of modern film and TV, in which it's thought that even Mordor and Narnia have be photorealistic to pass muster. Those who think that theater's prospects rest with the very thing that makes theater unique -- its theatricality -- could make a pretty good case with Metamophoses

The themes Zimmerman draws from Ovid concern love, trust and kindness -- and even, as Pappas noted when I interviewed him about the show, a pretty strong environmental sensibility. (Several characters are turned into trees or birds, and this is a happy fate; another character who cuts down a goddess's favorite tree is cursed with insatiable greed to the point of a rather grisly fate.) If Ovid's stories are indeed timeless, there's little need to dress them in sweatsuits -- or to pretend they're real. "The myth is a public dream," as one character says. "Dreams are private myths."

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