Director Doug Hara was in the original cast of Mary Zimmerman’s 2002 Tony Award winning play “Metamorphoses” and he directs a fine revival to kick off the Arden Theater’s 2015-16 season. Zimmerman tells the mythic stories of Greek gods and goddesses and how they tangle with mere mortals to teach timeless messages about avarice, lust, anger, love, loss and redemption. The common thread is the metamorphosis characters go through at the hands of the frivolous gods.
The set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge is dazzling in its opulent simplicity and facility to render earthy and ethereal vistas- A vivid brick and laurelled entrance for mortals giving way to a magisterial steely blue balcony where the gods to appear. They lord over a dark, shallow rectangle pool wrapped with planks, where the main action takes place.
Three laundresses wash garments as they tell the tale of Midas, played with squirrelly brio by Christopher Patrick Mullen, who wanders in barefoot in a business suit, musing on his wealth. He is interrupted by a drunken wanderer and lets him sleep it off in the pool. He is in fact a drunken god ( Steve Pacek is a hilarious souse), so Midas is granted his wish to have that golden touch, which he regrets when his daughter jumps into his arms. He is commanded to walk to the ends of the earth to a redemptive pool to reverse the spell.
Erysichthon (Lindsay Smiling) destroys a centuries old tree and is punished by the gods by being visited by unrelenting, monstrous hunger that can’t be satisfied. He ravages everything in his path for more food and even sells his mother (fortunately she appeals to Poseidon to help her escape).
Surprisingly Zimmerman’s weakest vignette is the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, the bride who dies on her wedding day. Orpheus makes a deal with the gods of the underworld to let her live. Zimmerman makes it a twice told tale with Ovid’s version followed by one from 1906 by the poet Rilke.
Better rendered is the fable of Ceyx and Alcyone, warns her husband that his expedition to find an oracle is dangerous. Alex Keiper is a full-on Greek tragedian in this scene and Sean Bradley at first seems like a poetic youth, but Keiper turns this into a lightening bolt drama in minutes.
Incest is at the phantasmagoric heart of many a Greek myth and Zimmerman does not back off from graphic depiction. Leigha Kato and Lindsay Smiling take on the challenging Myrrha who is cursed by Aphrodite to fall in erotic love with her father Erysichthon. Hara stages this strong material in a grotesquely beautiful sex dance in the pool, and valiantly delivered by Kato and Smiling.
Not all of the stories are tragic. Martin plays the snarky psychiatrist is in session with Phaeton, son of the Sun God, who complains that he is never allowed to run things and when he does he accidently scorches the earth. Whoops! Martin sums up by telling us that we “pay scant attention to myths in our lives.”
Poloma, a wood nymph in a bell shape floral dress that flares perfectly as she skips through her forest, is pursued by the painfully shy Vertumnus, who disguises himself to talk to her. Nature and love win out.
The final tableau has Smiling and Brandon Pierce portray Zeus and Hermes who disguise themselves as beggars to test the charity of mortals. When they are turned away at every door, but welcome at the poorest household of an elderly couple, they grant them their wish to die at the same time, to spare each other the pain of grief. Gods and their charges end up in the pool and learn the fate of Midas and his daughter.
Olivera Gajic costume design is couture from the House of Olympus create stunning visuals. Ceyx’s blue organza samurai robe that morphs into feather folds when wet or Krista Apple –Hodge as Psyche in a voluptuous Athena gown to seeking out Pierce, as Eros, with stunning copper wings and nothing else, in a scene that looks like an oil by Caravaggio come to life.
As he as shown in several other Arden productions, director Hara devises inventive physical theater and character choreography. The visuals are given cinematic clarity with Thom Weaver’s deft lighting in concert with Christopher Colucci’s transporting soundscapes.