When most of us first encountered ancient Greek myths, somewhere in our middle school years, we were bowled over by the graphic stories of love and loss, of vengeful gods and their mortal playthings. We mused: What a cool way to exist if you were a god, and what an awful way to live if you were a human. The key to all that joy and tragedy was transformation: people being turned into all kinds of animals, insects and shrubbery.
Some of that magic is summoned in Metamorphoses, the myths of the Roman poet Ovid as adapted and originally directed by Mary Zimmerman. In this production by the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts Acting Program — which hereafter will be referred to as the MFA Acting Program — one is reminded of the universality of myths and their power to enchant.
But before we get to the play itself, let's pause a moment and pay tribute to the MFA Acting Program. For the handful of young mortals who are accepted, it must seem like a boon from Zeus himself. They are accepted for three years of conservatory training and an apprenticeship with the Cleveland Play House. If you think they'll be in debt for years paying that off, you'd be dead wrong. In fact, the MFA Acting Program participants enjoy a full tuition waiver along with a $13,500-per-year stipend, resulting in a debt-free educational experience. By Jove, that's amazing!
This production introduces the program's class of 2018, and they do a creditable job under the direction of Ron Wilson, who is also director of the program itself. Leaping from one unconnected story to another, as does the original source material, the play mixes antique phrasing and contemporary colloquialisms to make the yarns easily accessible.
It helpfully starts with the story of King Midas, the one we're all familiar with, so we get our feet planted firmly in the magical world of myths. Lavour Addison is amusing as the lucky royal who is given one wish by the god Bacchus (Paul Bugallo), and asks that everything he touches turn to gold. This Trump-like dream scenario has a tragic downside that becomes readily apparent when Midas's daughter (Megan Medley) leaps joyfully into his arms.
All the players are cast in multiple roles, giving each the chance to show off their acting chops. For instance, Medley returns later as the creepy embodiment of Hunger, a condition that is imposed on another hapless human by a pissy god. Indeed, it seems as if the all-powerful deities continually have their immortal knickers in a twist about something or other.
In one episode, young and impulsive Phaeton (Kyle Cherry) is floating on an air mattress and whining to his therapist about his old man Apollo (Peter Hargrave). In another, King Ceyx (Randy Dierkes) goes sailing off to Delphi, not aware that the gods have declared that he and his adoring wife Alcyone (Sarah Cuneo) will never meet again on Earth. So when he's drowned in a nicely choreographed shipwreck dance, and Alcyone throws herself into the sea in grief, the gods get all embarrassed and turn the doomed couple into birds, sailing over the sea together for eternity.
Up for some kinky sex? How about Myrrha (Paige Yepko), daughter of the king of Cyprus, a girl with some serious daddy issues. She tricks Pop into sleeping with her, he is enraged, and the gods rescue her by turning her into the eponymous myrrh tree. Gives you a whole new take on that last gift to baby Jesus from the three wise men, doesn't it?
But the nicest transformation of all is in the coda, when humble Philemon and his wife Baucis (Mariah Burks) invite a disguised Jupiter into their home for food and shelter. The big man is so impressed that he turns their hovel into a McMansion and grants their fondest wish that they will eventually die together. So after a long life, Jupiter turns them into twin oaks, standing next to each other for centuries to come.
It's a handsome production on scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski's set, complete with fan-blown fabric simulating various bodies of water. However, it's unfortunate that a real pool of water couldn't be managed, as was the case in the production in New York City back in 2001. Real water transforms all of us. But more than that, water is the perfect metaphor for metamorphosis: it renders us joyously weightless when we dive into it, yet it can kill us in a matter of seconds if we're not paying attention. Still, even in its dry version, Metamorphoses is an engrossing piece of theater.Metamorphoses
Through March 26, produced by the CWRU/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program at the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org