Mythology, it is often said, inhabits a timeless realm, and this opening-night performance of Metamorphoses by Ensemble Theatre Company transported us there. If Ovid makes you think of antique togas and the conjugation of Latin verbs, banish those associations now. Mary Zimmerman’s smart adaptation of a handful of key stories from the Roman poet’s massive compendium is entertaining, psychologically savvy, and even wise, and director Jonathan Fox has the cast, the imagination, and the resources of the New Vic to create magic.
The original poem, from the year 8 CE, is a collection of myths that treat of transformation, “bodies, and how they can change to assume new shapes.” But at another level, Ovid is carefully performing literary transformations — gathering, embellishing, and fixing to meter hundreds of stories — and Zimmerman in her turn morphs a portion of this into a 90-minute abbreviation. One of the great pleasures of this play is its respect for the poetry of the original, namely the lush language of the frequent recitatives. This imperative for honoring the word is humorously skewered up front during a preamble on the creation of the world, where the new paradise lacked one thing only: words, “so man was born that he might talk.”
Zimmerman’s selection of stories also demonstrates how psychologically astute Ovid and his sources were in coming to terms with the rational and irrational in human nature. Inherent to the allure of myth is the elusive meaning that always seems to hang just out of reach. Eros and Bacchus and Morpheus represent a dark interior well of energy that is the source of dream, love, and art, as essential to human life as bright reason with its understanding and order. Furthermore, the play is unabashed with its critiques and prescriptions of social values: the dire consequences that stalk greed (Midas) and environmental recklessness (Erysichthon).
The most singular feature of the set is a large pool of water occupying center stage, where much of the action takes place — water, that most malleable element, and symbol for the subconscious mind. The pool is handy for vivid representations of oceans, rivers, and fountains, but also most of the stories involve conflict, and the water exaggerates, and cushions, physical struggles.
A tight and talented cast of nine actors, all of whom play multiple roles, includes Brian Abraham, Cynthia Beckert, Michael Cusimano, E. Bonnie Lewis, William C. Mitchell, Brian Patrick Monahan, Chase O’Donnell, Maya Lynne Robinson, and Daniel David Stewart. Orpheus (Cusimano) and Eurydice (O’Donnell) was one of the better-known tales, but here it’s told twice — first by Ovid, and then according to Rainer Maria Rilke, who speculates intriguingly on Eurydice’s experience. King Midas (Abraham) was poignantly recast as a Wall Street banker who neglects his daughter in his lust for gold. Stewart and Beckert were absolutely winning in a very funny routine where Phaeton, the privileged but illegitimate son of the Sun, sits for a therapy session. By the end, Ovid’s, and Ensemble’s, main concern was love, and the audience clearly agreed.